Fixing the Referee Crisis Is Just the Start

The referee crisis is about something much bigger

Ben Sherwood

| 3 min read

I wrote about the great referee crisis in The Los Angeles Times, but there’s much more to say.

I’ve reffed for 14 years in the quiet suburbs of Los Angeles and New York. Most of the time, it’s been all about the game and the kids. I’ve blown plenty of calls. Once in a while, I’ve been heckled, even abused, by moms and dads I know from the neighborhood.

At 6’4” — and after a career in media where people yell a lot — I am not easily intimidated. But think about how that verbal abuse feels for moms, dads and teenagers who volunteer or get paid peanuts so that kids can play.

Then think about refs sent to the hospital to get 30 stitches, who are home nursing a black eye after being ambushed in the parking lot, who are recuperating after being sprayed in the face with Lysol.

The sideline mayhem has become pervasive enough that nearly two dozen states have laws against harming sports officials. And the legislature in Minnesota is considering a $1,000 fine for unruly sports parents

But the real result? Refs are leaving youth sports in droves. No refs means no games. And no games mean kids simply don’t get to play — all because their parents can’t behave. 

Out-of-control youth sports parents are nothing new. In a 2017 survey by the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), 87 percent of participants had suffered verbal abuse in their role as officials; 47 percent have felt unsafe because of the behavior of administrators, coaches, players or spectators and 13 percent had been assaulted.

There’s reason to believe this most recent wave of violent behavior has been fueled by the pandemic

Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist, put it this way: “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened. When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”

In sports and life, we need refs. In heated games, refs enforce rules and impose order. In our inflamed society, we need someone willing to make hard calls. We can’t just take things into our own hands — call everything our way — and punch anyone who disagrees.

The great referee crisis isn’t just about underpaid, under-appreciated refs, or even the abuse. It’s about a crisis of collectivism and community. 

While you wouldn’t blame anyone for quitting, the answer to this crisis isn’t to leave the field. It’s to step up — to coach, to ref, to call out bad behavior on the sidelines, to remake youth sports into the best version of itself, a communal activity full of friendship, connection, healthy competition and joy.

If we need to banish the crazies to do so, fine.

If we can’t get it right in youth sports, where the stakes are so low, how can we get it right anywhere? Sooner or later we will realize how much everyone loses — on every field and in every community — when we can’t call balls and strikes without someone going crazy.


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