Youth sports pledge: Parents, stay in your seat, leave the ref alone

Youth sports can bring out the best in children and, sometimes, the worst in adults. Refs and umpires are in charge, period; parents should put the “I’m not going to just stand by and say nothing if I see something that’s not right” attitude on hold.

Two boys from the Cal Ripken Little League in Heritage Harbor, Fla., stand on the pitcher's mound before the start of an exhibition spring training baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles, March 24, in Florida.

Here’s some parenting advice I honestly believe can’t be contradicted. It’s aimed at all moms and dads who are about to have their initial experience with youth sports.   

In many cases there will be a pre-season meeting to get everyone acquainted and go over practice schedules and other details. At this gathering there should also be a serious discussion about spectator conduct. You all need to be on the same page about what is, and is not, acceptable behavior. And then everyone should make a collective pledge. Raise your hands or take a voice vote but you must all vow to never, ever hassle any officials during a game.

Yes, this sounds like the oldest broken record in the world. News stories about parents behaving badly at Little League games were common when I was growing up in the 1960s. It’s a tradition nobody is proud to support that stubbornly defies it all efforts to quash it. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and I think the best window of opportunity is when families take the first step into organized team competition.

The most important fact everyone has to accept is that the refs and umpires are in charge, period. Sometimes you won’t agree with their decisions, and sometimes they will make bad calls. It’s not a perfect world, right? Mistakes happen and they always will. Just keep in mind that when those moments of consternation occur, sarcastic wisecracks and rhetorical questions like, “What’s up with that?” aren’t going to improve the situation.  

A policy of "Respect the Ref" shouldn’t put a damper on parental enthusiasm or stifle competitive spirit. Cheer all you want, enjoy the excitement, but reject any impulse to go negative. The people who referee and umpire for youth leagues are performing a difficult task with minimal pay and hearing trash talk from the sidelines only makes the job more stressful.

The one area where parents do have a legitimate reason for questioning an official is safety. If you think the other team is playing too rough, or the field conditions are hazardous, whatever your concern may be it should be handled by the coach. Be sure to include a safety rundown at the initial team meeting. There are rules about many situations, such as how many batters a pitcher can hit in one inning before being removed. Everyone needs to be absolutely clear on these details before the season begins.

Do you agree with everything I’ve said up to now? It’s possible some people don't, and that’s why having a conversation about this subject is so important. The success of any policy depends on the temperament and personality of each participant, and I do appreciate the notion of, “I’m not going to just stand by and say nothing if I see something that’s not right.” But there are times when you simply must put that attitude on hold, and watching from the sidelines while your kids are on the field is one of those times.

During the past 30 years the concept of "polite society" has taken some big hits. Television has helped transform confrontation and outrageous behavior into popular entertainment. In the online world, insulting and abusive comments are spewed out by the minute. As a parent, taking a pledge of good conduct during youth sporting events is one way you can push back against these trends. Just say "no" to being snarky. While the kids are in action developing their athletic skills, all grownups in attendance have a great opportunity to practice their social skills.

Give it your best shot.

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