MCSSADA - NJAC Newsletter
Officials and Sports
Officials and Sports
The Impact to our Student-Athletes
1. They learn that mistakes are not okay.
They are going to make mistakes. If we complain or yell at the referee every time they make a poor call, we teach our children that making mistakes is not okay. Our kids learn to be afraid to fail and likely end up not trying at all to avoid messing up. The young referee will likely quit, and the children playing will see the actions of their parents and coaches, then be afraid to try something new as players out of fear of “blowing the game.” This lesson extends to the rest of our children’s lives, and they will learn to be afraid of taking chances in all endeavors.
2. They learn to make excuses.
Blaming the referee is an excuse. Our teams are going to get bad results sometimes. And seldom, a draw may become a loss because of a misjudged call from a referee. However, we can only control our efforts, actions, and responses. If we complain about and blame the referee, our kids will begin to blame their poor results and performances on the referee. But we need to teach our kids not to blame others for their results and learn to overcome any obstacles that enter their path. Otherwise, our children will blame others for anything and everything that goes wrong in their lives, and they will never be as successful as they otherwise could be.
3. They learn to give up when facing adversity.
Bad calls by referees are inevitable, and we can do nothing to change that. Our kids need to know to realize this. We cannot control the referee’s actions. However, we can control how we respond to situations. Our players must learn to press on when given a difficult situation and do everything in their power (such as their effort, actions, and attitudes) to overcome it. If we don’t teach them how to brush off what they can’t control and focus on how they can overcome adversity, our kids will forever struggle in life
4. They learn to disrespect authority.
This is one of the most ironic situations regarding adults complaining to referees. We often complain about kids having no respect and a disregard for authority. However, when the referee – the person in charge of a match – makes a poor call, we complain and yell. How do we expect our kids to learn to respect authority if we don’t show that same respect ourselves? As parents and coaches, we undermine our authority by teaching kids to be disrespectful.
Youth sporting events with no fans? Experts warn it’s coming if bad behavior continues
Picture this, four or five years from now: High school gyms and fields are mostly empty on game nights because parents and spectators, prone to violence and screaming obscenities, have been banned. Only one referee is working because thousands have left the job after countless verbal and physical attacks. Even the teams have scant substitutes, as fewer kids are playing amidst the increasingly volatile atmosphere of youth and high school athletics.
For several years, sports officials and experts have warned of the exploding epidemic of bad behavior and abusive conduct permeating the sidelines at youth and high school games across the country. As parents have become more financially and emotionally invested in their child’s sports careers — and are enrolling kids in sports at younger ages than ever before — obnoxious behavior and physical violence has surged.
Coaches are heckled mercilessly by parents. Pre-adolescent athletes have been the targets of taunts about everything from their jump shots to their waistlines. Officials are brutally attacked during and after games, leading 47% of officials to say they feared for their safety because of fan behavior at a game, according to a 2017 survey of more than 17,000 referees by the National Association of Sports Officials.
Without immediate intervention, some experts are warning that youth sports, now a $19 billion industry, could be headed for a scene out of a science fiction novel, with games played before barren, empty bleachers.
“Folks have got to come to their senses, otherwise there’s got to be severe penalties,” said Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO). “We’ve tried moral persuasion for years and things have not gotten better. Now we have to start thinking in drastic terms because of how people are acting.”
Increasing the Penalties
Merely asking spectators to behave at youth and high school sporting events just doesn’t work anymore, coaches and officials say. The only way to truly make them think twice about hurling expletives or following an official to their car after a game is by threatening serious punishment. That’s why Assemblywoman Vicky Flynn (R-Monmouth) has spent months crafting a bill that she hopes will drastically discourage bad behavior at youth games. A mother of two athletes, Flynn has witnessed parents screaming at officials, coaches getting red cards from acting out and even referees escalating tense situations at games.
“The bad behavior is just not stopping,” Flynn said. “I don’t know if it’s this pent-up angst from being locked up during COVID. I don’t know what it is. But it’s very angry out there still.”
Flynn’s bill, which has been discussed in the Assembly this year, would increase the penalty for threatening bodily harm to youth sports officials, coaches, players or staff at events from fourth-degree simple assault to fourth-degree aggravated assault. In addition, any assault against a sports official would be upgraded to third-degree aggravated assault if an individual injures a sports official or makes physical contact of an insulting or provoking nature.
The bill also would establish mandatory minimum fines and jail time for convictions, and implement fourth-degree harassment charges for individuals whose verbal or non-verbal behavior causes an official to feel potential bodily or mental harm.
“It’s about accountability, and right now there is none,” Flynn said. “It’s sad that it’s going to take legislation to get people to act right at youth sporting events. But I just don’t think there’s another way at this point.”
Already 23 states, including New Jersey, have laws in place defining assaults on sports officials as crimes. But many sports officials wonder if it’s enough of a deterrent with conduct trending in the wrong direction.
In April, a female softball umpire in Mississippi was punched in the face after a game for 12-year-olds, resulting in a severe contusion and nerve damage in her left eye. Two months later, a 72-year-old youth baseball umpire was brutally attacked by a coach during a game in Branchburg, leaving the umpire with a broken jaw that required extensive dental surgery.
School's Responding - A Baseline for Security
Joe Piro, the athletic director at Nutley High, said adding a stronger legal deterrent is necessary in the current climate.
“Unless people are going to start to behave appropriately, you have to legislate against those type of things,” Piro said. “Otherwise, these problems are not going away. They’re only going to get worse.”
If Flynn’s bill is enacted into law, all leagues across New Jersey — from youth and AAU all the way up to high schools — would be educated on the legal repercussions out-of-control or violent fans would face. Signs could be hung at gyms and ball fields. Emails would be sent to every parent before every season.
The law, Flynn and others said, must be universal and clear: Act out and you could find the police at your door.
Hundreds of thousands of youth and high school sporting events take place every year in New Jersey — from 5-year-old soccer matches all the way up to state championship high school football games. But not all events are treated equally. In fact, many youth games across the state have little to no security or structure at all, officials say.
It’s one of the major reasons why bad behavior often escalates at youth games — because there’s no formal authority figure at the facility to ease tensions or enforce penalties when things get out of hand.
That, several experts said, needs to change to ensure a safe future for sports.
“Really the only way to maintain order is with proper site supervision,” Piro said. “You have to have the right security there. You have to use things that are a deterrent to poor behavior and it has to be uniform. The consequence for being out of line at a Nutley youth sporting event has to be the same if you’re out of line at a Fairfield or Montclair youth sporting event.”
The idea is drastic yet simple: All games across the state, no matter the age or level of play, must have a formal site supervisor on hand. That person will be in-charge of security, maintaining order and de-escalating volatile situations.
Taken a step further, the formation of a governing body for all youth sports could help oversee bad behavior. The organization could keep lists of parents who get out of hand and ensure punishment is enforced.
Mano, from the national officials association, agreed that more support needs to be mandated in order to take control of the current atmosphere.
“You have to have somebody there — and you might have to have a number of somebodies,” Mano said. “When something is really going south, we officials really need to be able to turn to somebody for help and to regain order. This cannot keep falling at the foot of the sports officials. That’s not what we’re hired to do.”
Mark Bitar, the officials assigner for North Jersey high school football and basketball, said the next step would be banning fans altogether from games. If parents can’t keep their cools, then they can no longer watch in-person.
“If people can’t behave, then maybe we need to have youth games with no fans,” Bitar said. “Then you can’t watch it. You have to live stream the game.”
Better Pay = More Officials
The impact of the unruly behavior has led to all-time low numbers of active sports officials and referees across the country, prompting hundreds of games to be canceled, according to the National Association of Sports Officials.
The harassment has grown so rampant that more than 70% of new referees in all sports quit the job within three years, and registration for officials is down about 30% across the country.
Mano, the president of the NASO, fears if the abuse doesn’t stop soon, leagues will reach a crisis point where there aren’t enough officials to accommodate all the games.
“We’re already at the critical level,” Mano said. “We’re standing right at the edge.”
To combat the defections, Michael Ben-David, the West Morris Regional superintendent, said officials and even coaches should receive better pay to entice them to stick around. Officials make anywhere from $50 to $100 per game in New Jersey, depending on the level of play.
Ben-David said those numbers need to increase — either through fundraisers, donations or upping team membership fees — if the state is going to retain more officials.
“I’m convinced that the compensation needs to increase, given the time they put in and the value,” Ben-David said. “The market should command higher and higher salaries to meet the obvious additional pressure that these positions are feeling.”
Bitar, the North Jersey officials assigner, agreed that increased pay could help curb defections. It’s an idea already in motion. Earlier this year, the state’s governing body for high school sports began offering a $300 stipend for new officials to help offset the cost of uniforms, whistles, hats and more.
In the future — if youth and high school sports have a future — officials will need to earn more.
“We need to hit this and hit this now,” Bitar said. “These games are hard to officiate. It’s not easy. Can it be fun? Absolutely. But it’s something you have to be really passionate about and it takes time.”
A Bleak Future?
Every month or so, another jaw-dropping headline hits the internet about an official being brutally attacked or a coach being shot to death during a youth football game. Hand-wringing commences and experts chastise the behavior. But little changes.
Coaches fear the culture surrounding youth sports will get worse before it gets better. And while some advocates are suggesting changes, they also wonder if those changes will be put into place. Banning fans would result in a loss of revenue, which often goes to paying officials, security and support staff.
And Flynn’s legislation is the second recent attempt at addressing fan behavior that has yet to be signed into law. In 2020, Assembly Democrats John McKeon and Benjie Wimberly introduced a bill to form a task force comprised of various experts, parents and youth athletes to examine aspects of youth sports in New Jersey, including bad behavior at games.
The legislation stalled in 2021 during the pandemic.
“Someone needs to step up here and do more than spout words,” Mano said. “You need to make an investment to change the culture or else this is going to remain a major, major issue.”
Matthew Stanmyre may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Parent Seat: Beyond the Scoreboard
This video is designed to help parents understand the benefits of participation in Interscholastic Athletics and Activities. They go farther than wins and losses! Feel free to download this video for use at parent and staff meetings. You can download an additional, printable handout for Beyond the Scoreboard here.