Sports parents are out of control and officials don't feel safe. Here's what's at risk

When we bring our children to their fields or courts of play, sometimes we see not-so-subtle reminders of a darker side to youth sports, a growing problem with no resolution in sight.

“I’m a KID,” read one sign I encountered at a youth baseball tournament several years ago. “My coach is a VOLUNTEER … The officials are HUMAN … NO college scholarships will be handed out today.”

To some parents, coaches and officials are deterrents to their children’s athletic careers, obstacles along a path to wins and playing time. Sometimes, parents will do anything to remove the coach or the official from this path toward high achievement — even resort to verbal and physical abuse.

Last week in St. Louis, a youth football coach of 9- and 10-year-olds was shot four times by a parent upset with his son's playing time. The coach, Shaquille Latimore, survived.

The incident is a stern and sobering reminder of how we are failing our kids with our behavior at sporting events. It’s a horrific, extreme example of a side of parents that regularly manifests year after year at the youngest levels and through high school. There have also been well-documented stories of disgruntled parents throwing punches at sports officials in Florida, Indiana, Mississippi and California, among others.

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Sports parents' behavior has gotten so atrocious, particularly toward officials, that there is a growing fear about how the two groups can peacefully coexist.

USA TODAY Sports spoke with three state officials overseeing athletic associations in the United States, two referees and the director of officiating services for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), along with gathering personal anecdotes from youth sports parents, coaches and referees nationwide. They all said they routinely witness abuse directed toward referees and coaches and are concerned with safety.

“I think people have become so used to being able to say whatever they want on social media, and with no repercussions whatsoever, that I think they feel like they can do the same thing now in person," said Ron Nocetti, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF). "And some of the things that are said, it’s not like booing a bad call. Like it or not, people are gonna react to calls. But what we’re seeing now is just on a personal level. It’s gotten completely out of hand.”

Officials don't feel safe, and it's because of parents

In a recent survey of nearly 36,000 sports officials conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), 69% of the men and women from all levels of sports who responded said sportsmanship at games is getting worse. More startling, though, was 50% of the officials said they have felt unsafe while doing their jobs.

Parents of athletes are the biggest offenders, officials said in the survey.

USA TODAY Sports asked Jack Lally, a longtime assignor and referee for youth and high school lacrosse and ice hockey in New Jersey, if officials in his state sometimes don’t feel safe. His answer?

“Unequivocally, yes,” he said. “You’re leaving the arena, or you’re leaving the field, and you’re on your own and you’re going to your car and officials have been approached, officials have been threatened. There’s been a number of issues with that and it’s a very serious ongoing issue that really needs to be addressed.

"Official safety is a huge issue.”

There is a nationwide shortage of sports officials from the youth through high school levels, forcing the hand of Lally and others to put referees in positions they may not be adequately trained to perform. This issue only sharpens the epidemic of a sports system overwrought with overbearing, and sometimes dangerous, parents.

“I really think when somebody’s emotions get out of control and they verbally attack or confront an official, I believe they’re really attacking the striped shirt,” says Mark Uyl, the executive director of Michigan’s High School Athletic Association. “They’re really attacking the blue shirt or the yellow jersey in soccer. I think most of the time when these parents go off the deep end, it’s as if they don’t even realize they’re talking to a human being that has thoughts and feelings and emotions.”

Nearly 50% of the officials polled in the NASO survey said sportsmanship is worst at the “youth competitive” (travel) level. The next highest area was high schools at about 19%.

High schools generally have a site manager who can handle an unruly spectator and who will walk the referee or umpire to the parking lot after a game. If you’ve been to a youth travel sports event, though, you know that luxury doesn’t really exist.

“When the game’s over, you’re on your own,” said Lally, who referees travel events in New Jersey during the summer. “You’re going to your car, or you’re going to the referees room and everybody knows who the referee is when he’s carrying a black bag out of the rink. There’s been situations where I’ve gotten (expletive) in the lobby from parents. It’s like, ‘Just get me out of here. Just get me home.’ ”

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Entitlement and disrupting games

Even if parents aren’t threatening officials’ safety, they often behave as if they're entitled to inject themselves into games. Just last weekend at my 13-year-old son’s travel baseball game in Northern Virginia, an opposing player's parent interrupted the game from behind the backstop by loudly instructing players to appeal a call at third base.

“You’re not the coach!” one spectator (me) shouted to him from the bleachers after he was done.

“I don’t have to be the coach!” he yelled back.

According to sports administrators and officials across a number of states, these types of incidents aren't uncommon nationwide.

“I think we’ve lost some decorum in society in general and I think that’s carried over into the interscholastic arena. And I think people feel because they paid for admission into a game or because their son or daughter is playing in the game, that they have the ability to say what they want and there should be no consequences to it,” said Todd Nelson, assistant director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA).

Uyl, who is on the board of NASO, agreed. He's been a high school teacher, coach, administrator and an official. He last worked a football game less than two weeks ago in Detroit.

"When I first started out as an official and a coach (three decades ago), I felt like there was a certain level of respect that came with educators, a certain level of respect that was given to officials," Uyl said as he drove home from association meetings in Chicago that focused on recruiting, retaining and improving the environment for officials. "And it just kind of feels like folks in authority positions, there isn’t that respect anymore."

Watching his daughter's AAU basketball games in Michigan, Uyl said he's seen parents put a foot on the floor while berating a referee for a non-call on the other end of the court.

Similarly, Lally said when he referees lacrosse games in New Jersey, parents are right on the sidelines and it feels like they are on top of him.

When a kid has a misstep or makes a mistake, both Uyl and Lally sees parents point fingers at a referee or coach instead of their kid.

"They become issues more often than not," Lally said of parents. "I think they think all of their kids are going to Hopkins or Syracuse, and they’re not. And they get out of hand and at times, you gotta remove 'em, you gotta get ’em out."

Are bylaws and policies enough?

The NYSPHSAA has enacted a spectator policy this fall that if a person is ejected from a game, he or she is required to sit out the next game or to complete a parent credential course before returning. Nelson said some sections and schools in New York require sitting out and taking the course.

“It’s our responsibility as schools, in my opinion, to handle coaches, players and spectators," he said. "I don’t think it’s an official’s responsibility to address those issues. It’s solely the schools’ responsibility.”

According to the bylaw for California high school sports, if a person is kicked out once, they don’t get to come back for the next game. If they are kicked out twice, they don’t get to return for the rest of the season.

There are 25 states, including California, with either a law, a civil statute or a supportive resolution on the books regarding assaults on sports officials. Another eight states are currently working on getting legislation passed, according to NASO's 2023 map tracking sports officials legislation across the United States.

But after what has happened with recent violence, even such actions don't seem like enough.

“Just the fact that there’s even a threat of physical violence is completely uncalled for,” Nocetti told USA TODAY Sports. “This is a game, and I think that’s what people are forgetting here. When we’re talking about education-based athletics, we’re supposed to be teaching life lessons to students about how to deal with adversity, how to learn from mistakes, how to appreciate the fact that no one is perfect. Your child’s gonna make mistakes during games. The coaches are gonna make mistakes and the officials are gonna make mistakes, and if we can’t see that in education-based athletics, then we’re really lost.”

What's at stake if parent behavior continues to spiral? Here are a couple scenarios that could unfold, according to the many officials and administrators who spoke to USA TODAY Sports:

No fans

Remember, it’s a privilege, not a right, to watch our kids play sports, especially at the high school level. Like any privilege, it can been taken away.

Nelson said interscholastic officials in New York think of their sports as having three pillars: athletes, coaches and officials. Parents are not one of the pillars.

"If you don’t have one of those, you’re not gonna have interscholastic athletics," he said. "The one good thing about COVID is that it taught us that we don’t need to have spectators at contests to hold interscholastic high school events."

Some state associations could take further action with their bylaws if violence continues at sporting events.

“I hope it never happens where we get to the point where we have to start saying that if people can’t behave at children’s games, we’re going to have to clear the stands and play the games without you,” Nocetti said of California. “That would just really be a sad state.”

No officials

According to the most recent data from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), based on 36 of 51 state associations, there has been a known loss of about 8,000 officials since 2018-19. Still, that's up from a known loss of more than 31,000 from 2018-19 to 2020-21.

But the NFHS is approaching those figures with cautious optimism, according to director of officiating services Dana Pappas. She said there is bounce-back from the pandemic with officials continuing their careers, but also potentially some inflated increases because of the economic downturn.

The average age of the officials who participated in the recent NASO survey was 57. Officials are aging out, while younger ones getting recruited are seeing the abuse inflicted on those who stick around. Pappas said last spring she heard from state associations about unruly behavior from spectators "on basically a daily basis."

“The biggest issue we have in the officiating world is we're all drawing from a shared pool of officials,” Pappas said. “So when people, at any level, see that those things are happening, it’s a cause for pause of, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And then it’s certainly a cause for pause with somebody who may be seeing it, they were considering officiating, and now go, 'I don’t know if that’s really what I want to do in my spare time.’ "

Lally said New Jersey is short officials in almost every sport and offering bonuses for people to sign up.

“I am worried about the future,” he said.

Michigan surveys its former officials every third year about the reasons they leave. Adult spectators are a prominent reason why.

“We’re losing people because of the way that some adults are treating other adults,” Uyl said of Michigan. “I often ask the question, ‘What other walk of society do we allow one adult to treat another adult that way and we just kind of shrug and say, ‘Well that’s just part of the game. That’s just how officials get treated.’ ”

No games?

Every time a parent acts out against an official, he or she threatens to hold up, if not suspend the game. But when acts of physical violence are committed against coaches and officials, the events become a public safety hazard.

Games are already creatively rearranged to adjust to when officials are available to work them. Parent behavior, and the violence it has led to, has chased other referees and umpires away. Could it threaten the games themselves? It’s a question we have to ask, but let's hope it never gets to that point.

The CIF has a PSA video on its website that shows high school athletes pleading with adults to restrain themselves. Nocetti is getting ahead of the issue by asking California parents to talk to other spectators they know about settling down.

"I would never expect a parent to approach someone they don’t know at a contest because, in today’s world, you just don’t know how that person’s gonna react," he said. "However, when a parent sits right next to someone they’ve known for years and they’re a friend of theirs, that parent should be able to say, ‘Hey, what are we doing here?’ I think parents have to hold each other accountable when it’s appropriate and when they know the person and know it’s someone that they can talk to."

Lally, the referee assignor from New Jersey, put the concept in a simpler form:

"Let the kids play. Parents, bring your lounge chair out, sit on the side, soak up the sun and enjoy a Saturday afternoon with your kids."

The future of youth sports depends on it.

Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. His column is posted weekly. For his past columns, click here.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Parent behavior in youth sports is abusive. Officials don't feel safe