In news that might surprise you, the biggest threat young athletes face today is not potential injuries they might experience while competing on the field, but instead the growing concerns about the declining number of adults willing to officiate youth sport games. We are currently witnessing shortages in youth sport officials across the country, with most former officials claiming the stress and hassle caused by potentially dangerous adults as being their #1 reason for quitting. With fewer officials available, increasingly more kids are left at-risk for playing fewer games — or possibly seeing their sport eventually cut from the curriculum altogether. Youth sport leagues and interscholastic athletic state governing bodies are very aware of the growing sport official shortage, but there appear to be no easy answers to the problem. A New Jersey Little League, however, is proposing a new potential fix to the problem: Let parents have a shot at being officials themselves.
The youth sport official challenge
The success of youth and interscholastic sports relies on responsible, trained sports officials, but too many good officials have been chased away because of unruly and sometimes dangerous parents. While never being a lucrative career path, adults who officiate youth and interscholastic sports do so for the love of the game and to help young athletes have opportunities to compete in athletics. Unfortunately, increasingly more youth officials are being personally attacked (both verbally and physically), resulting in officials walking away for safety reasons. For the remaining officials, more and more are claiming that even if they feel safe they do not enjoy the role of official as much as they once did because of unrealistic parents who expect perfection from officials with no wiggle room for human error. Low pay, potentially dangerous working environment, and less fun have resulted in fewer adults willing to officiate our kids games.
Examining the New Jersey approach
A new approach in New Jersey is gaining national headlines, and may lead to more constructive conversations around the safety of youth officials in the future. The new rule is simple and reads as follows:
Anyone in the stands who confronts an ump during a game must themselves umpire three games before they’re allowed back as a spectator.
What the Deptford Township Little League is basically saying “If you think being an umpire is easy, come on out and see for yourself.” Youth sport officials have many things they are responsible for while officiating games, but most parents tend to ignore or overlook these challenges — enter the New Jersey proposed model that will give parents a front row seat to all the action! Soon New Jersey parents will experience the speed of the games, the immediacy that calls need to be made, and just how much heckling they hear from the stands moment-to-moment. Parents will also quickly learn how tough it is to make the right call when not in the perfect position or being forced to focus on other issues beyond the game (i.e. loud, rude fans). And finally, the hope is that parents will better appreciate that after a couple hours of stressful officiating the pay is barely worth the effort, lending more evidence to the importance of treating officials right so that they can intrinsically enjoy spending time at the field helping our kids have opportunities to play sports.
Will the New Jersey parent-official model succeed and serve as a template for other sports leagues across the country? That question remains to be answered, but what we can expect from parents forced to officiate is a new and greater appreciation for just how tough it is to referee games, and how ugly adults can make the experience when they come to the field with wildly unrealistic expectations. Most youth and interscholastic sports officials are minimally trained, but they do the best they can by hustling, displaying integrity and sportsmanship, and encouraging kids to play their best. If we do not start realizing this, more sports will be cut in the future resulting in fewer athletic opportunities for kids.