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Is fan abuse making the youth referee an endangered species?

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Who WOULDN’T want to take grief for $35 a game?

Mark Hyman, author of a recently published tome about what ails youth sports, in the New York Times took aim at a chronic problem: abuse of officials.

Looking for part-time employment in a field in which hundreds of onlookers can raise a ruckus over one’s honest mistake or no mistake at all? There are plenty of openings.

Around the country, it has become harder to find youth sports officials and to keep experienced ones on the job. The situation has forced some games to be postponed and others to be played with short-handed crews. In some places, it is not unusual for football referees to work two games on long and exhausting Friday nights. Spot shortages are also common in soccer and volleyball.

“Are we desperately short? No,” said Jack Folliard, the executive director of the Oregon Athletic Officials Association. “But we are struggling to get enough officials.”

The cause of the problem is not a mystery to those in striped shirts, who are growing weary over abuse from agitated fans, most of them adults.

“I have officials specifically tell me that’s why they’re not renewing their licenses anymore,” said Fran Martin, the assistant executive director of the Kansas High School Athletic Association. “They’re tired of putting up with the behavior.”

It’s difficult to get a handle on how many officials are really quitting, because this recession has created in some areas a boom in the number of people who’ll take that extra $50-75 a night while they try to find, presumably, less abusive employment. But, no doubt, youth official abuse is one of those problems that’s always been with us (I remember my mom, as official scorer during one of my games, having to make sure one coach left the field after the ump ejected him over his abuse — a coach that happened to be one Lyle Moran, my Little League’s founder), and probably always will be.

Think of yourself watching a pro game on television. How often are you outwardly berating the referees? Yes, these are pros, and you might have money on the line, but an occasional gripe is one thing. If you’re constantly blaming your team’s woes on the referees, then you’re a whiner, you’re teaching your kid to be a whiner, and you’re probably more likely to be the type who is going to go off on some 14-year-old girl umping your 8-year-old daughter’s softball game. It’s not that referees are blameless and mistake-free. It’s teaching a lesson to the kids you raise, and you coach, that you worry about the things you can control, like how you play. Kids aren’t going to become better players if they learn everything is always the official’s fault.

Bill Wells, the fine youth sports columnist for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican, has two good rules on the only times it’s acceptable to give grief to a youth sports official:

While I’m not a fan of yelling at officials, there are at least two scenarios where I think it’s acceptable, although not ideal. If an official tries to make an example out of a player, or if an official is letting dirty play continue, I think a coach or spectator is somewhat justified in yelling at an official as long as it does not include poor language or threats. Talking to the official would be best, but in the heat of the moment, things do happen.

Note that these scenarios have to do with safety and fairness — not whether the official is a fucking blind incompetent. The only times as a coach I can remember even talking to a referee during a game about calls is when I coached basketball, and I thought players were a little loose with the elbows and a little eager to undercut shooters. In those cases, though, I waited for a time out, and I suggested (nicely, I hope) that even though this is a rec league and things are called a little more loosely, that it might be a good idea to make sure that stuff stops. Like any humanoid, a referee tends to respond better if you ask, respectfully, than if you ask him to open his fucking eyelids, you stupid shit.

Also a good thing to remember for youth sports parents and coaches: The level of officiating can only be equal to the level of play. So if you’re watching a 8-year-old’s baseball game where five out of every six pitches is behind the batter, don’t expect a major-league level umpire.

However, I’m going to assume that not everyone is going to be nice and understanding. It happens. People watch their teams and their kids, and they get emotional, protective, ready to strike if they feel their young ones are being wronged.

So for the self-protection and sanity of officials, I would like to suggest they follow what I will call Sarzo’s Rules for Referees.

I name these after Mike Sarzo, who in 2009 became one of those aforementioned unemployed-turned-referees. Whatever his job situation, Sarzo has continued to officiate various sports, from football to baseball to lacrosse, in the suburban Washington haunts of Maryland. I interviewed him by email in December 2009 about his experiences, and daggone it, he didn’t have multiple harrowing tales to tell about rabid fans wanting to string him up at game’s end.

A lot of this, I believe, is because Sarzo keeps a good head about him on the field. Distilling what he told me, I give you Sarzo’s Rules for Referees:

1. Keep in mind that coaches, fans and players advocate for their own teams.

2. Tune out the comments, and keep the focus on your job.

3. But if the comments go too far, then be prepared to take action. When you say, “Coach, that’s enough,” mean it.

4. Crewmates should support each other on the field. (Off the field, you can critique each other all you want.)

5. Slow down. Make sure you see what happens before you make the call.

While these five rules might not minimize referee abuse, at least they can help the official deal with it. They also increase the chance that even the coach has been a jackhole all game, once the excitement and adrenaline has passed, Coach Jackhole will walk up to you, extend a hand, and say, “Good game, ref.”

Written by rkcookjr

June 10, 2010 at 5:38 pm

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