“It’s the only occupation where a man has to be perfect on Opening Day and improve as the season goes on.”
—Anonymous quote from Baseball Almanac, “UMPIRES”
Officials…who are these people? They are among the adult constituents of the sports culture; however, they themselves are not fans, not parents, nor coaches. They are a unique subgroup, and rarely if ever do they find favor with 100% of the other adult constituents. How should fans, parents, coaches, and yes, players interact with these individuals? Are we to consider them sports advocates or sports antagonists?
We have a growing problem in youth sports–difficulty acquiring and retaining enough individuals to produce a quality pool of officials, whether it be soccer, baseball, football, etc. In an article in the Washington Post dated June 16, 2017, Nick Ellerson describes a “cutthroat sports culture, one that often holds amateur referees to a professional standard.” Ellerson reports the loss of officials at a rate of 50% in baseball (quitting after one year), and in football officials’ numbers are down 40%. A huge factor is named in the title of his article, “Verbal Abuse from Parents, Coaches is Causing a Referee Shortage in Youth Sports.” Not just verbal abuse, but officials feel threatened at times for their personal safety.
In a recent report on Fox News Insider, I learned of a Facebook page called “Offside.” It was created by Brian Barlow, a youth soccer coach who seeks to shine a light on this inappropriate adult behavior. Barlow says that parents are “sucking the enjoyment out of athletic competition for their kids.”
One of the most despicable displays of disrespect and downright rudeness can be seen on any given Saturday at the little league baseball park. Often the officials themselves are youths, out there because they played the sport and enjoy being around it. But one bad call–and let’s be honest, there is a learning curve–and the adults in the stands are shouting “You missed it Blue!” I have seen a level of bullying that should never be tolerated. Perhaps we expect too much of our officials, especially at the younger levels. There’s no instant replay, only the best judgment of the referee in the moment based on their own knowledge and skill level.
I hired a young man to be an assistant coach who had played sports at the highest levels. He was an alumnus of our school, and it was a natural connection to get him involved. What I regret is not preparing him for the huge discrepancy between officiating at the highest level versus the sixth grade level. In the coach’s first game, he was flagged for unsportsmanlike behavior while contesting an errant call. Setting our expectations appropriately is key to personal restraint. The more you know, the harder that is to do. That’s why I always enjoyed lacrosse season. When it was a new sport to our school, parents seemed delighted to watch their children play. Rarely did they criticize officiating. They didn’t know the rules.
So when there are mistakes that impact games, what is the best approach? Ken Dugan, a hall of fame college baseball coach, who authored Coaching Championship Baseball, includes a section on do’s and don’ts for players. Number one on his list under “Conduct on the Field,” is:
The umpire’s judgment will be accepted by the players at all times; the coach will do the arguing.
Pat Summit’s interactions with basketball referees could be seen throughout her career. Dee Kantner, an NCAA official whose career overlapped with Summit’s during her 30+ years, describes a mutually respectful relationship. In Tennessee Titan Dee says: “You had to earn your stripes with Pat. You had to bring your best…But that’s what greatness does: inspires more greatness.”
I believe it is the role of the coach at any level to be the one who interacts with officials during a competition. Coaches should be demonstrably knowledgable and respectful on the sideline. Players and parents should be able to trust coaches and administrators to model appropriate behavior as they advocate for the team. After all, what predominately motivates individuals to become officials, especially in youth sports, is not the paycheck, nor the praise, but the love of the game.