America is facing an athletics crisis. Fewer people want to officiate youth sports. With taunts, threats, and even violence from out-of-control parents on the rise, officials simply aren’t game for calling games.
“This is a nightmare across all sports,” says Dana Pappas, an official with the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“Veterans are quitting by the droves,” says Kristi Moore. She oversees fast-pitch softball umpires for the state of Mississippi. “They’re three or four games in when someone [threatens them]. They’re like: ‘You know what? I’ll go cut grass on the weekend.’”
The situation has become dire—as Moore knows firsthand.
In the spring, she was umpiring a softball game. Moore called a runner safe. One parent thought the runner was out and began screaming, according to Moore, and “accused me of cheating these kids.”
Moore ordered the woman to leave or her team would forfeit. The enraged woman vowed to settle things later.
Moore wasn’t fazed. She’d endured similar threats during her 10 years as a youth umpire. But after the game, the woman was waiting.
“I was maybe three steps off the field,” Moore recalls. “That’s when she punched me.”
Moore’s injuries include a black eye, nerve damage, and a bruise inside her ear. Moore hasn’t been back on the field since. Police arrested the assailant. But Moore isn’t sure she’ll ever return to the sport. “It’s just scary,” she says.
Barry Mano is president of the National Association of Sports Officials. He says abuse is a big problem for recruiting qualified officials to call children’s games. It’s sad because “without us,” Mano says, “it’s just recess.”
Major League Baseball umpire Ted Barrett speculates that the rise of travel teams in baseball, Amateur Athletic Union teams in basketball, and specialized camps for youth football has made parents more invested in their kids’ athletic careers, both financially and emotionally.
Parents feel like “they’re paying so much money,” Barrett says, “they think they should have better umpires.” It’s a not-so-subtle form of thinking of themselves more highly than they ought. (Romans 12:3)
In April, a gang of parents and players attacked a referee at a church gymnasium during a tournament. The referee required hospitalization.
Those actions revealed the attackers’ belief systems. Selfish pride overtook them: “I’m right; you’re wrong!” “You cheated me!” Their actions spoke loud and clear about who they loved and what they believed.
Moore says, “My prayer is that moving forward, something good will come from this, and we begin to change across all sports in how we treat our officials.”
Why? How we treat those around us reflects not only on us but also on the God we claim to serve. Jesus commands us to love others—that includes parents, teachers, friends, and sports officials.