Column: Amid increasing abuse, officials flee youth sports
ATLANTA (AP) — When one looks at the ugly bruise encircling Kristi Moore's left eye, it's not surprising so many refs and umps are hanging up their stripes.
Why put up with incessant taunts and threats from out-of-control parents?
Why fret over potential violence — even the chance of losing your life — because someone thinks you blew a call at a 12-year-olds' softball game?
America is facing a crisis in prep and youth sports, where fewer and fewer people are willing to take on the thankless job of officiating games.
"The veterans are quitting by the droves. They're sick of it,” said Moore, who oversees fast-pitch softball umpires for the state of Mississippi as well as the city of Laurel. “When we work to recruit new people, get ‘em trained, get ’em out there on the field, they're three or four games in when someone gives them a good cussing out or an invitation to get their tail beat. They're like: ‘You know what? I'll go cut grass on the weekend.'”
Moore can certainly understand that sentiment.
A couple of weeks ago, she was umpiring a girls' softball game. She rarely works on the field anymore but stepped in to the $40-a-game gig because another umpire was ill.
On a play at second base, Moore called the runner safe. A parent watching the game thought the runner was out. She began screaming profanities, according to Moore, “accused me of cheating these kids.”
Moore ordered the woman to leave, which she only agreed to after the ump threatened to forfeit the game — but not before vowing to settle things later.
Moore didn't think any more of it, having endured similar threats during her 10 years as a youth umpire. But as soon as the game ended, the enraged mother was waiting.
“I was maybe three steps off the field and she was there," Moore recalled. “And that's when she punched me.”
The woman was arrested and charged with simple assault.
In addition to the black eye, Moore said her injuries include nerve damage and a bruise inside her ear. All of that will heal with time.
The mental wounds will be more of a challenge. Moore has not been back on the field since the attack. She's not sure if she ever will.
“In the back of my mind I'm like, ‘What if she had a knife in her bag and stabbed me? What if she went to her car and got a gun, then came back and shot me?" Moore said. “It's just scary.”
Barry Mano was appalled at what happened to Moore but not surprised.
As president of the National Association of Sports Officials, a group that advocates for referees and umpires in a wide range of sports at all levels, Mano hears similar stories pretty much every week.
That abuse is a big reason so many states are having trouble finding enough qualified officials to call the games that children play.
“And without us,” Mano pointed out, “it's just recess.”
There are almost daily reports around the country about how dire the situation has become:
— At Fishers High School in suburban Indianapolis, the junior varsity baseball team already called off a pair of games. “This is second time this spring we have canceled high school level game on sunny, dry day because we did not have umpires available!” the school tweeted.
— A couple of years ago, just before the pandemic started, the state of Michigan had roughly 13,000 registered high school officials, Mano said. That number is 8,900 today.
— Tennessee's high school association has requested all members play at least one football game on Thursday night next season to help alleviate a shortage of referees. That way, a single crew can call games on back-to-back nights.
“All we can do is ask teams if they can play on Thursday night," said Bill Marbet, a longtime high school ref who is now an assigning officer for the Central Tennessee Football Officials Association. “If so, we can cover you. If not, sorry, we may not have enough officials.”
The Michigan decrease mirrors a nationwide trend, according to Mano, who puts the reduction of registered officials at somewhere between 25-30% since the start of the pandemic.
COVID-19 accelerated the problem, without question. It was not the root cause, however.
Many officials quit before the pandemic because of the abuse they were enduring from overzealous parents and fans. Then the games stopped, forcing others to consider their options. When play resumed, a significant number of those officials did not come back.
Major League Baseball umpires Lance Barksdale and Ted Barrett were outraged when they heard of the assault of Moore. They wanted to show their support, so through UMPS CARE Charities they invited her to the game they called Friday night in Atlanta between the World Series champion Braves and the Miami Marlins.
Barksdale, a Mississippi native, said the assault on Moore is just another example of why officials in all sports are increasingly in short supply.
“I'm definitely concerned about it," he said. “Until people are held accountable and we stop allowing them to act any way want to, we're going to continue to have shortages. People are getting tired of it.”
Barrett theorized that the rise of travel teams in baseball — not to mention AAU teams in basketball and specialized camps for young football players — has caused parents to feel much more invested in their kids' athletic careers, both financially and emotionally.
“Parents have this sense of entitlement,” Barrett said. “They're paying so much money, they think they should have better umpires.”
Mano's organization is pushing for laws that would make the assault of an official a felony. Already, 23 states have passed those statutes, but Mississippi isn't one of them.
Even more importantly, there needs to be a change in attitude. Coaches should make it clear they won't tolerate such behavior from parents or their kids are off the team. And in the stands, fellow parents can't sit by idly when one of their own is hurling insults at the officials.
“We can always take the bad actors into court and hammer the crap out of them," Mano said. “But more than that is the culture here. Parents and fans and administrators and league directors have to understand that we're not going to permit this type of behavior.
"Even if a call is egregiously wrong, that's exactly the point. That shows the world who we are. We can't have a world that turns on the rightness and wrongness of calls.”
While Moore hasn't decided if she'll ever call another game, she has been encouraged by the support she's received from referees and umpires all over the world.
If anything, maybe this will be a turning point in the war on officials — a war that will eventually make losers of us all.
“I didn't ask to be the poster child for officials' abuse, but here I am,” Moore said. “My prayer is that moving forward, something good will come from this and we begin to change across all sports in how we treat our officials."
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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