Kate Nematollahi, director of education programs for the National Alliance for Youth Sports, was just 14 years old and a basketball player for her high school’s junior varsity team when she took a part-time job officiating in a rec league for girls ages 5 to 10 years old.
It seemed like the perfect fit. She would get paid $10 a game to officiate four games every Saturday. It sure beat running a paper route or doing household chores to pick up extra money. Besides, it was a rec league for small girls; how hard could it be, right?
It didn’t take long for that perspective to come to a screeching halt.
“I remember holding back tears in the gym, then crying in the car after a game because the spectators were so harsh,” Nematollahi wrote in a recent NAYS blog post. “At that age, I did not understand why parents in the stands were yelling at me when I was trying my best to officiate a rec league game for 7 and 8-year-old kids. In one case, it was someone who I had personally known since I was a toddler.”
Steven Cournoyer, youth coach and creator of The Inspired Coach Training Academy and Guidebook, took his share of abuse as a Little League umpire. During a game in which the other umpire failed to show up, Cournoyer had to call balls and strikes from behind the mound.
“A guy got up from behind one of the benches and was watching me,” Cournoyer told theSeason. “He goes, ‘That (bleeping) missed by a mile. How many times are you going to (bleep this up)’?
Cournoyer called time out and confronted the unruly parent, who continued his expletive-filled tirade.
“The police had to come and take him away,” he recalled.
It’s little wonder so many youth sports leagues and organizations are having trouble filling officiating positions. The pay doesn’t usually match the difficulty of the job itself, not to mention the verbal and sometimes physical abuse inflicted by coaches and parents. (In some cases, officials aren’t paid at all and are volunteers).
The problem goes beyond the destructive behavior itself. As leagues add more teams and games, officiating organizations are finding it more difficult to keep up with the demand. According to an article published in the Washington Post last year, youth soccer continues to rise in popularity among kids in the D.C. area, but referee organizations are seeing their numbers either stay the same or drop. In 2017, Mid-Atlantic Officials, D.C.’s largest referee group for baseball, saw its worst shortage in over 25 years.
Another issue is officials may be aware that abuse comes with the job, but are often not given the proper training or support to deal with it. Nematollahi remembers attending a training session for new officials before the season began. The program coordinator explained the rules, signals, working the scoreboard and other important procedures. But no mention was made about crowd control.
“Later, I learned that an important topic was missing: how to deal with coaches and parents,” she wrote.
So what can be done to minimize the difficulty of finding enough quality officials? There are no easy answers. League Network, a media and fundraising platform for youth sports organizations, believes referees need to feel safe again. League organizers can go a long way to accomplish that by changing the culture and the way we view youth sports.
For her part, Nematollahi says leagues and officials groups need to do a better job of training and supporting officials by establishing procedures to discourage negative treatment, recognizing the groups who are doing things the right way, and educating parents on what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. It is possible to bring about a positive sports culture at all levels, if leaders are willing to step up and declare that abusive behavior will no longer be tolerated, period.
From GameChanger and Stephen Kerr
Read more from theSeason here.