Sport

‘My under-10 matches are the worst’: no end in sight to youth referee abuse

Nearly every single day, a sports official becomes the victim of verbal abuse or physical assault. This isn’t just true of professional and collegiate referees – all of whom receive the protection of a security detail – but of the hundreds of thousands of referees who officiate youth and amateur recreational matches across the United States, many of whom are under 18 years of age.

In a detailed survey of over 17,000 referees conducted last year by the National Association of Sports Officials, 87% of respondents said that they had suffered from verbal abuse in their role as officials and 13% responded that they had been physically assaulted before, during, or after a game. That’s nearly one out of every seven officials.

Referee administrator Tony Crush still remembers the first time he was physically assaulted while officiating a soccer match.

At the time, Crush, then only 15 years old, began bantering with an adult league player after that player complained that Crush had failed to call a foul. The banter grew into a heated argument and, moments later, the player attacked Crush, knocking him temporarily unconscious.

“What I’m sharing … is not an uncommon story,” Crush, now 40, told the Guardian. “It happens a lot more and unfortunately it’s under-reported [by the victims].”

Stories like Crush’s take place on soccer fields and basketball courts and baseball diamonds across the United States: a 17-year-old frantically phones her father for help as a mob of angry parents gather around her car; a 15-year-old girl sits dazed on the field after a grown man has put his hands on her chest and pushed her to the ground; a 16-year-old picks himself up off the ground after being blindsided by a punch during a recreational soccer match.

While many people acknowledge that the abuse and assault of referees is endemic in American sports culture, few people seem willing to do anything about it, and fewer still consider just how many of the referees on the receiving end of this abuse are still children.

In youth soccer, for example, 72% of referees for leagues affiliated with the US Soccer Federation are 19 years of age or younger, and in some states those rates are even higher. In Kentucky, nearly 80% of referees are 18 or younger, while in Minnesota a staggering 69% are 14 or younger, with some referees as young as 11.

Sign up to The Recap, our weekly email of editors’ picks.

Many of the youngest and most inexperienced of these referees begin their officiating careers by working games at the youngest age levels. In theory, these assignments would provide young referees with the opportunity to learn their craft in a more stress-free environment than the one they might find in the more competitive older age groups. The reality, however, is that the younger age games often lead to the most referee abuse.

“It’s the younger ages that are the biggest problem,” veteran referee and Minnesota state referee administrator Paula Hildman told the Guardian. “My u[nder]-10 matches are the worst. Those parents are the absolute worst.”

“It is amazing to me how this would be considered child abuse if someone were yelling at their kid like that in a school setting or a work setting,” Hildman added.

One former teenage referee wrote to the Guardian about his experiences refereeing under-11 and under-12 matches as a 16-year-old. In one particular match, a coach pushed him to the ground after a disagreement over a red card.

“I turn around and see this coach from other side [of the field] sprinting to me and I think, ‘He’s going to deck me,’” the referee wrote. “He stops right before and says [his player’s action] wasn’t purposeful, but I object and tell him that player is sent off. He disagrees and pushes me down. He didn’t do anything more, but I didn’t ref after that.”

Incidents of verbal abuse and physical intimidation like this one drive many young referees out of the game. According to US Soccer, around 60% of referees nationally do not re-register for a second year. This mass exodus creates the need for more inexperienced referees, who are then placed in charge of those same younger age matches, thus perpetuating what Hildman calls “the vicious cycle” of abuse and attrition.

The explanations for this abuse are myriad: parents feeling entitled to yell at the referee because of the escalating costs of youth sports; the growing pressure to win in competitive youth sports; parents, coaches, and players all expecting a level of officiating commensurate with the pros; the broader society’s diminishing respect for authority figures.

While there are many possible explanations for the rise in referee abuse, there are just as many potential solutions.

In Michigan, for example, where amateur referee John Bieniewicz died after he was physically attacked by an adult player in 2015, activists in the referee community teamed up with state senator Morris Hood to try and pass legislation that would have created stiffer legal penalties for assaulting a referee. That legislation stalled despite the urgent testimony of Bieniewicz’s widow; undaunted, Hood is reintroducing the bill this year.

Yet even if Michigan were to enact stiffer penalties for referee assault, would that really be enough to change a sports culture that dehumanizes referees?

“What is the moral compass that spectators can use to understand that their behavior, no matter what they perceive to be the blame of the situation, is crossing a moral line?” asked Chico Villarruel, a regional referee administrator for US Youth Soccer. “What is the civic discourse that we need to have that minimizes prejudice and racism and all of the other ‘-isms’ that we have in our world including the ‘-ism’ of the treatment of sports officials?”

Such a civic discourse first requires a conversation between administrators, parents, coaches and players about the proper treatment of match officials, something that sports leagues across the United States are only beginning to incorporate into their programs.

Other leagues and organizations are taking even more drastic measures. In Kentucky, one league has begun fining clubs $250 for every parent dismissed from a match for poor behavior, while another has gone even further, banning exhortations of any kind – positive or negative – from the sidelines.

Villarruel believes that there may be an even simpler solution for changing the entire culture around youth and amateur sports in this country: empathy.

“Ask parents and ask spectators to be a sports official for one year,” Villarruel said, “and maybe we’ll have a cultural change.”

In England, one young referee was unwilling to wait for such a cultural change. After years of verbal and physical altercations with players, parents, and coaches, and deeply disaffected with the lack of response from the English Football Association, 18-year-old Ryan Hampson decided he had had enough.

Last year, Hampson took the extraordinary step of calling on his fellow referees to go on strike. In March 2017, more than 2,000 referees across England took up Hampson’s call for a strike, earning the teenager an audience with some of the highest-ranking officials in the FA.

“I’d say it takes a lot of guts to stand up and actually tackle this front on,” Hampson told the Guardian. “I’d say it can’t just be done by one person; it’s got to be a team. There’s got to be a number of officials who will stand up and will do it and will bite the bullet and go for it and not back down. It takes someone who will genuinely have the determination to follow it through and not be frightened of any repercussions that could be possible from the authorities … saying, ‘No, I’ve had enough.’”

In a political moment when teenagers across the country – from minority students in Chicago staging “die-ins” at City Hall to protest inequality in public education to the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School leading a national movement for stricter gun control laws – are organizing and protesting for their own protection, the idea of a strike by underage referees seems far less outlandish than it might have even six months ago.

As Hampson points out, officiating for many is a paid job. If you wouldn’t accept verbal and physical abuse in the workplace, why would you accept it on the soccer field or on the basketball court or on the baseball diamond?

“In other walks of life you wouldn’t wait [for change],” Hampson said. “You’d act on it.”

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top