No refs, no games: Can people play nice?

Lathan Goumas/Northwest Herald/AP/File
Erin Blair, a health teacher at Lakewood School in Carpentersville, Illinois, officiates a boys junior hockey game at Leafs Ice Centre in West Dundee, Illinois, on Dec. 8, 2013. Recruiting more women as referees is one of the strategies for solving the current shortage of officials.

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Just as pandemic restrictions are easing up and young people return to organized sports, a shortage of referees poses another challenge.   

According to the Southeastern Hockey Officials Association, which supplies officials to the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, the number of people available to referee hockey games has fallen from about 450 in 2018-19 to just 276 today. These refs are expected to call about 15,000 games this year. 

Why We Wrote This

Increasingly hostile parents and coaches are being blamed for a shortage of referees at all levels of youth sports. What does this say about civility in general – and can new programs make people behave better?

Hockey isn’t alone in this. Almost every state is reporting a shortage of officials in just about every sport. While the pandemic is cited as the immediate cause, experts agree there’s another issue at play that goes much deeper: loss of civility.

A 2017 survey, conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials, of more than 17,000 officials across the country in all sports found that 57% believed sportsmanship was declining. And the worst offenders, according to these officials, are parents and coaches. In fact, more than 46% of respondents said that they had “feared for [their] safety due to administrator, player, coach, or spectator behavior.”

But there is hope. Stakeholders are developing new tools for officials: mentorships to support referees, a program to teach empathy, and new avenues for recruitment. 

At the start of every season, hockey parents in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia wrangle with a lengthy array of forms, shopping lists, and meetings. This year, a letter from President Linda Jondo of the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, the governing body for amateur hockey in the DMV, has folks talking.

“As you may be aware,” the letter begins, “a large number of officials have either not returned this season or left since the season started.”

According to Benjamin Ahlstrom of the Southeastern Hockey Officials Association, which supplies many of the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association’s officials, the number of people available to referee hockey games has fallen from about 450 in 2018-19 to just 276 today. These refs are expected to call about 15,000 games this year.

Why We Wrote This

Increasingly hostile parents and coaches are being blamed for a shortage of referees at all levels of youth sports. What does this say about civility in general – and can new programs make people behave better?

The immediate cause for this shortage has been the pandemic, Mr. Ahlstrom says, which “accelerated the generational attrition of our highly trained officials. Older ones sat out the pandemic season, and just decided not to go back.”

But there’s another issue at play that goes much deeper – loss of civility. Sports experts agree: Parents, coaches, and fans are increasingly aggressive toward officials. 

“[W]e’ve racked up more than a dozen reports of players, parents and coaches thrown out of rinks for their unprofessional conduct towards officials in the first two weeks of this season,” states Ms. Jondo in her letter. 

From peewee club sports to high school face-offs, a shortage of officials leaves organizers with uncomfortable choices: compromise on safety, move games, or cancel them altogether. But new efforts to address the problem are underway. 

Shameless

Most every state is reporting a shortage of officials in just about every sport. 

A 2017 survey, conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials, of more than 17,000 officials across the country in all sports found that 57% believed sportsmanship was declining. And the worst offenders, according to these officials, are parents and coaches. In fact, more than 46% of respondents said that they had “feared for [their] safety due to administrator, player, coach, or spectator behavior.”

New officials seem to be particularly affected. Though numbers vary, it’s estimated that about 50% quit after just one year on the job. The National Federation of State High School Associations says 80% quit after three years. 

Frank Maisano, a high school and college official who has been refereeing multiple sports for nearly 40 years, puts it succinctly: “People have always challenged [officials],” he says, “but it’s worse [now] because people feel less shame over it.”

Peter Stearns at George Mason University, who has spent his career studying the role that shame plays in American society, agrees with Mr. Maisano. Fan behavior is “worse, almost certainly,” says Dr. Stearns, noting that as a society we don’t approve of shaming people as much as we once did. “We’ve got a hyperindividualism … in the U.S. that argues, ‘If I’m offended, then rules don’t apply.’ Manners, mild forms of shame, simply don’t count against this personal sense of indignation.”

Further, says Dr. Stearns, social media allow us to be “as nasty as you feel.” Combine that with “individual entitlement,” he continues, “and you’ve got a poisonous mixture.”

Kevin Swift, head football coach at Gold Beach High School in Oregon, is sure that the treatment of officials has taken a turn for the worse, and that part of the reason is the lack of shame people feel for acting out. He’s seen the decline over more than 35 years as a teacher and athletic director, as well as coach. He also believes the sense of community service – which motivates many referees – is “a dying concept.” 

“It’s tougher to make a living in the world today,” he explains, so people have trouble balancing being a referee with working a job that keeps them away from home 11 or 12 hours a day.

Roberta Butler is familiar with all of this as an assignor – the person responsible for scheduling referees – for field hockey games in and around Philadelphia. She, too, notices a breakdown in referee treatment and availability. “Officials are on the field because … they like being out there,” she notes. “They’re not doing it to penalize a coach. ... Just the coach coming up, shaking your hand, and greeting you takes a lot of the tension out of it. That civility has left our games.”

Rhett Butler/Courtesy of Stacy Warner
Stacy Warner of East Carolina University has been studying officials and their roles in society for more than a decade. She notes that the shortfall of referees has been going on for a decade, in the both the U.S. and abroad, and believes the shortage is complex.

Beyond fan behavior

Stacy Warner of East Carolina University has been studying officials most of her career and isn’t at all surprised by the shortage. “There’s been a global referee shortage for a decade now,” she says.

Ms. Warner doesn’t discount the role that fan and coach abuse plays but notes that it’s far from the only factor driving people from the game. Her research shows that “people don’t understand there’s a shortage.” When they do become aware, she continues, “they don’t feel they have the knowledge or support they need” to help change it. “It’s … really difficult,” she says, “for people to break in and start that process. ... [Inadequate] training, mentoring, clearer policies on how games are assigned, and being able to talk to the right group of people” are all well-known issues in the officiating world.

The difficulty in recruiting is reflected in data from the National Association of Sports Officials survey: In 1975, the median starting age for new officials was 24 years old, topping out at 36. In 2017, the median starting age was 38.

Seeking solutions

Creative efforts are underway to address the lack of civility partially responsible for the shortage of officials.

As someone who has worked with Division I (college-level) basketball for 21 years, including supporting officials off the court, Brenda Hilton is deeply aware of the challenges referees face from fans. In 2019 she began connecting with people at the National Association of Sports Officials and learned more about what’s happening at the high school level.

Her response was to launch Officially Human, an organization committed to teaching fans, coaches, and parents about officials in an effort to lower the temperature among them. Its keystone program is Elevate Respect.

LM Otero/AP/File
Spenser Simmons, a referee with the North Texas Basketball Officials Association, speaks to players during a high school freshman girls basketball game in Allen, Texas, on Nov. 12, 2015. A lack of civility has been blamed for the escalating attrition among referees.

Pairing simple scenarios with data about the shortage and treatment of officials, Elevate Respect shines a gentle light on people’s behavior in an effort to get them to change. Aimed at parents, coaches, and other stakeholders, the emergency program teaches empathy.

“[It] takes you through the youth sport ecosystem: why people become officials, how they do it, what happens if they’re gone,” says Ms. Hilton.

The 20-minute course was introduced in May. “Anecdotally,” she adds, “folks who have taken this course [are saying]: ‘I’m appalled at the way I’ve behaved.’”

Kevin Collins, a former NHL official and member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, is focused on supporting officials at all levels by encouraging more mentorship. He created the Summer Officiating Development Camp in 1983 as well as training manuals for USA Hockey refs.

Shocked by the growing level of threats facing officials in all sports, Mr. Collins is encouraging older referees to pair with mentees off the ice as well as on. “Parents confronting officials in the parking lot is a problem,” he says. “Something as simple as walking with young officials to their cars” can help. 

Back in the DMV, Ms. Jondo is insisting that her officials fill out incident reports; parents can be removed for up to five games for verbal abuse. In the five years that the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association has done this, there have been no repeat offenders.

Looking ahead

People like Ms. Warner and Ms. Butler are looking for new ways to recruit: attracting athletes who are aging out of competitive high school sports; encouraging officials to referee more than one sport; and reaching out to more women, who make up less than 10% of officials, according to a survey led by Ms. Hilton.

Mr. Swift, the Gold Beach football coach, turned to the two Coast Guard stations in his community to attract potential referees, with some success. He also believes first responders such as EMTs, police officers, and firefighters are potential resources.

For the foreseeable future, however, the official shortage is here to stay. And more players are going to feel the effects.

Ms. Jondo says, “We’re to the point that we’re looking to cancel up to 50 games a week.” 

Still, those in the game remain optimistic. “People are giving,” says Ms. Butler. 

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