Commentary: Angry parents are ruining youth sports. Here’s how to rein them in

As millions of children across the US return to fields and squares for spring sports, black eyes and bloody noses are also making a return. This time, the injuries aren’t just among the athletes. These are dangerous times for umpires and umpires announcing penalties and outs.

In Laurel, Mississippi, earlier this month, a 12-year-old softball game umpire was mugged by a parent in the parking lot and punched in the face after the game. The accused attacker – who was wearing a “Mother of the Year” T-shirt – was arrested and charged with minor assault, a misdemeanor and a $422.25 fine.

In Livonia, Georgia, this month at a church basketball game, a referee was attacked after the final whistle by parents and eighth graders. About 30 stitches later, the referee recovers.

Attacks at a baseball game in Texas, a football game in Northern California, and a hockey game in Colorado included a parent spraying a referee in the face with an industrial-sized can of Lysol. Chemical warfare is coming into youth sports. What now?

It’s no wonder that youth sport is struggling with double difficulties today. About 70% of young athletes drop out by the age of 11, mainly because sport is no longer fun. And 80% of arbitrators resign within two years.

Some have called the abuse of referees a “national crisis”. More generally, others have described youth sport as “a cauldron of shouting and hysteria.”

Despite many games going smoothly, too many referees being belittled and rules disregarded, verbal abuse and violence are rife and winning seems to be the only thing that matters.

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Chaos on the sidelines has become so pervasive that nearly two dozen states have laws against harming sports officials. And the Minnesota legislature is considering a $1,000 fine for unruly exercise parents.

But laws, says Brian Barlow, an Oklahoma referee activist, aren’t the answer. He has been leading youth soccer for 14 years and started the Facebook page Offside. It started out as satire — publicly shaming abusive side conduct with videos — but has evolved into advocacy for referees.

The problem is worse than ever, says Barlow, who also runs a referee academy. Leagues are losing referees at record rates and recruiting at historically low rates. “I’ve never seen a period where so many games have been canceled,” he says.

The result? Kids just can’t play – because their parents can’t behave.

Runaway teenage sports parents are nothing new. In a 2017 survey by the National Association of Sports Officials, approximately 87% of participants said they had been verbally abused, 13% had been assaulted, and 47% had felt unsafe because of the behavior of administrators, players, coaches, or spectators . And when it’s all captured on cellphone video, it becomes increasingly difficult to brush these incidents aside as isolated events.

There’s reason to believe this recent spate of violent behavior — also seen on airplanes, in grocery stores and at the Oscars — has been fueled by the pandemic. Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, told The Atlantic that the pandemic has created “high-stress, low-reward situations” that can lead to shocking outbursts. Other theories? Rudeness is contagious, substance abuse is on the rise and the isolation of the pandemic has been crushing.

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Some experts believe that as the world returns to “normal,” our societal norms will return as well. Ultimately. But in the meantime, youth sports parents need to get better.

A solution? When parents are abusive, they take away the privilege of watching their children play youth sports. Barlow believes a ban would be more effective than a fine.

For this to work, everyone – from the major leagues to state associations and local clubs to the government – ​​must adopt a zero-tolerance standard. And then they have to enforce the rules and laws. (The Mississippi softball game attacker is reportedly being banned from all recreational facilities in her city.)

Arbitrators themselves can also comment. At the end of the day there is no game if there is no referee. It’s hard to accept that it has come to this: flag football on Friday night, soccer on Saturday morning, canceled because no referee is willing to take the abuse.

Watching parents freak out on the sidelines – and sometimes feeling a little angry myself as a parent coach – I can’t help but think that we’ve completely pushed everything backwards. Over time, nobody really remembers the score of a youth game. But everyone remembers the parent who freaked out or the referee who got a slap in the face.

While you can’t blame anyone for quitting, the answer isn’t to leave the field. It is about strengthening youth sport and making it a community and civic activity.

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Ben Sherwood, Founder and CEO of MOJO, a youth sports app, is a soccer referee and has coached his sons in four sports for the past 13 years. He was President of ABC News, President of Disney ABC Television Group and Co-Chairman of Disney Media Networks.

©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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