When Sports Parenting Goes Too Far Protecting Officials and Youth Sports.
Parents in sports are getting out of hand, and referees don’t feel safe. What’s in danger?

When we take our kids to the fields or courts where they play, there are times when we see not-so-subtle memories of a bad side to youth sports that is getting worse and has no end in sight.

At a youth baseball game a few years ago, I saw a sign that said, “I’m a KID.” “My coach does this for free…” The officers are REAL PEOPLE… Today, NO college grants will be given out.

Some parents don’t want their kids to play sports because they see teachers and officials as hurdles that get in the way of wins and playing time. Parents will sometimes do anything, even emotional and physical abuse, to get rid of the coach or official who is getting their child to do well.

A parent in St. Louis shot four times a youth football coach four times last week because he didn’t like how much time his son was playing. Shaquille Latimore, the coach, lived.

The event is a harsh and depressing warning of how our behavior at sports events fails our children. This is a horrible, extreme example of a behavior that parents often show every year from the youngest grades up to high school. A lot of evidence has also shown that angry parents have punched sports leaders in Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, and California, among other places.

HEAD COACH STEVE: You think you’re a good sports parent, right? Coach for Tom Brady, Drew Brees has some very strange advice for you.

The bad behavior of sports parents, especially toward officials, is getting so bad that people are starting to worry about how the two groups can live together happily.

USA TODAY Sports talked to three state officials who are in charge of athletic associations in the US, two umpires, and the director of officiating services for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). They also got personal stories from parents, coaches, and referees across the country who work with youth sports. They all said they see abuse of judges and teachers all the time and are worried about safety.

Chief executive officer of the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), Ron Nocetti, said, “I think people have become so used to saying whatever they want on social media and getting away with it that they think they can do the same thing in person.” “Some of the things that are said aren’t like booing when a bad call is made.” People will answer calls whether you like it or not. But what we’re seeing now is only about one person. “Things have gone totally crazy.”

Officials don’t feel safe, and parents are to blame.

The National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) recently polled almost 36,000 sports officials. Of those the men and women from all levels of sports who answered, 69% said that bad manners is getting worse at games. What was even more surprising was that half of the officials said they had felt dangerous at work.

The study found that parents of sports are the worst offenders.

Jack Lally has been an assignor and referee for youth and high school lacrosse and ice hockey in New Jersey for a long time. USA TODAY Sports asked him if officials in his state don’t feel safe all the time. What did he say?

“Without a doubt,” he replied. “You’re leaving the arena or the field by yourself on your way to your car, and officials have been approached and threatened.” “Official safety is a huge issue.” There have been a lot of problems with that, and it’s a very important problem that needs to be fixed.

There aren’t enough sports officials across the country at the youth and high school levels, which means that Lally and others have to put judges in jobs they may not be properly trained to do. This problem only makes the problem of too many controlling and sometimes dangerous parents in sports worse.

A study by NASO asked nearly half of the officials who were asked to say that politeness is worst at the “youth competitive” (travel) level. After that came high schools, which got about 19% of the votes.

Most high schools have a site manager who can deal with a rowdy fan and lead the referee or judge to the parking lot after the game. But if you’ve been to a youth trip sports game, you know that’s not really the case.

The summer, Lally officiates road games in New Jersey. “When the game’s over, you’re on your own,” he said. “You’re going to your car or the referees’ room, and everyone knows who the referee is when he walks out of the rink with a black bag.” There have been times when parents have given me the finger in the lobby. “Just get me out of here,” it says. “Just take me home.””

Entitlement and messing up games

Parents often act like they have the right to get involved in games, even if they aren’t putting officials in danger. At my 13-year-old son’s trip baseball game in Northern Virginia last weekend, a parent of the other player loudly told the players to protest a call at third base from behind the catcher.

Someone in the crowd (me) yelled at him from the stands, “You’re not the coach!”

He yelled back, “I don’t have to be the coach!”

Sports managers and leaders in several states say that events like these happen all the time across the country.

“I believe that society as a whole has lost some manners, and I believe that this has spread to the area between schools.” “And I think people think that because they paid to see a game or because their child is playing in the game, they can say whatever they want and there shouldn’t be any consequences,” said Todd Nelson, assistant director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA).

Uyl agreed because he is on the board of NASO. He taught, coached, ran the school, and was a judge in high school. He worked a football game in Detroit not long ago, less than two weeks ago.

When Uyl first started out as an official and a coach (30 years ago), he felt like there was a certain amount of respect between educators and officials. Uyl said this as he drove home from meetings in Chicago with the association that were focused on hiring new officials, keeping old ones, and making the environment better for officials. “And it just kind of feels like folks in authority positions, there isn’t that respect anymore.”

Uyl said that while watching his daughter play AAU basketball in Michigan, he has seen parents stomp their foot on the floor and yell at the official for not calling a foul on the other end of the court.

Lally also said that parents are right next to him when he referees lacrosse games in New Jersey, making him feel like they are on top of him.

Both Uyl and Lally see parents blame a judge or teacher instead of their child when their child slips up or does something wrong.

The teacher Lally said of parents, “They become problems most of the time.” “I believe they believe all of their kids are going to Hopkins or Syracuse, but they’re not.” These things get out of hand, and sometimes you have to get rid of them.

Do rules and bylaws cover everything?

This fall, the NYSPHSAA made it so that if a fan is kicked out of a game, they have to miss the next game or take a parent licensing course before they can come back. Nelson said that some schools and sections in New York make you sit out and take the course.

What he said was, “I think it’s our job as schools to deal with coaches, players, and fans.” “I don’t think it’s the job of an official to deal with those problems.” It is only the schools’ job to do it.”

High school sports rules in California say that if someone is kicked out once, they can’t come back for the next game. They can’t come back for the rest of the season if they get kicked out twice.

California is one of 25 states that either has a law, a civil act, or a decision that supports the law against attacks on sports officials. Based on NASO’s 2023 plan of sports officials legislation across the United States, eight more states are currently working on getting laws passed.

This kind of action doesn’t seem like enough after the recent killings, though.

“The very fact that there is even a threat of violence is totally unacceptable,” Nocetti told USA TODAY Sports. Everyone here seems to have forgotten that this is just a game. When we talk about education-based sports, we should be teaching kids how to deal with problems, how to learn from their mistakes, and how to be grateful that no one is perfect. Your kid will mess up when they play games. Both the teachers and the judges will make mistakes. If we can’t see that in sports that are used for teaching, then we’re really lost.

What’s at risk if parents’ behavior keeps getting worse? According to many leaders and managers who spoke to USA TODAY Sports, these are some things that could happen:

Not fans

When it comes to high school sports, remember that we are lucky to be able to watch our kids play. It can be taken away, just like any other right.

Nelson said that interscholastic officials in New York see players, teachers, and officials as the three main parts of their sports. Not one of the bases is the parent.

“If you don’t have one of those, you’re not gonna have interscholastic athletics,” he stated. “The one good thing about COVID is that it taught us that we don’t need to have spectators at contests to hold interscholastic high school events.”

If violence at sports events doesn’t stop, some state groups could take more action through their rules.

Norcetti said of California, “I hope it never comes to the point where we have to start saying that if people can’t behave at kids’ games, we’re going to have to clear the stands and play the games without you.” “That’s just a sad state of affairs.”

Nobody in charge

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) says that since 2018-19, about 8,000 officials have been lost. This number is based on statistics from 36 of the 51 state associations. Still, that’s more than the 31,000 that were lost from 2018-19 to 2020-21.

Dana Pappas, head of referee services for the NFHS, says that the organization is cautiously optimistic about those numbers. She said that there is some recovery from the pandemic as officials continue their jobs, but there may also be some overinflated raises because of the bad economy.

The NASO study found that the officials who took part were, on average, 57 years old. The older officials are leaving, and the younger ones who are being hired can see how badly those who stay are treated. Pappas said that last spring, “almost every day,” she heard from state groups about fans acting badly.”The main problem in the world of officiating is that we all use the same pool of officials,” Pappas said. “So when people at any level see those things happening, it makes them think, ‘Why am I doing this?'” People who see it might think twice about becoming an officiant. They might have been thinking about it before, but now they’re thinking, “I don’t know if that’s really what I want to do in my spare time.”

Lally said that New Jersey needs more judges for almost all sports and is giving people extra money to sign up.

He said, “I’m scared about the future.”

Every third year, Michigan asks its past officials why they left the state. A big reason for this is the presence of adult onlookers. 

Uyl spoke about Michigan and said, “We’re losing people because of how some adults treat other adults.” In what other area of society do we let an adult treat another adult that way? And they just shrug and say, “Well that’s just part of the game.” Officials are treated that way all the time.

Not any games?

It’s a threat to hold up or even stop the game every time a parent acts out against a worker. If, on the other hand, teachers and judges are hurt physically, the events become dangerous for everyone.

There are already clever ways to move games around so that officials can work them when they are open. Other refs and umpires have left because of the fights that parents have caused. Could it be a threat to the games? We need to ask it, but let’s hope it never comes up.

On its website, the CIF has a PSA movie that shows high school players begging with adults to keep their cool. Nocetti is ahead of the problem by telling parents in California to talk about settling down with other fans they know.

“I would never expect a parent to approach someone they don’t know at a contest because, in today’s world, you just don’t know how that person’s gonna react,” he stated. “But if a parent sits next to a friend they’ve known for years, that parent should be able to ask, ‘Hey, what are we doing here?'” I believe parents should hold each other responsible when the time is right and when they trust the other parent enough to talk to them about it.

This idea was summed up by Lally, the New Jersey judge assignor: “Let the kids play.” On a Saturday afternoon, bring out your lounge chair, sit on the side, and enjoy the sun with your kids.

It’s important for the growth of young sports.

Coach Steve is another name for Steve Borelli. He has worked as an editor and writer for USA TODAY since 1999. He coached his two kids’ baseball and basketball teams for ten years. Two kids, one in high school and one in middle school, play sports with him and his wife, Colleen. His piece comes out once a week.

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