Why this matters
Young athletes lost months or years of play during pandemic shutdowns. Now, the drain of youth sports officials has the industry taking another big hit.
Brian Barlow publicly shames people who physically and verbally abuse youth sports officials. Witness someone going crazy at your child’s game? Send it to Barlow, an Oklahoma soccer referee who offers $100 for videos he posts on Offside, his Facebook page that has 63,000 followers.
Barlow has received more than 6,000 videos, a small percentage of which he uses to embarrass people into changing their behavior. The video stream is continuous, he says, because of a New York Times article that spotlighted his unusual shock strategy to support officials four years ago.
In fact, Offside is currently developing a franchise model with the goal of having individuals running similar Facebook pages in all 50 states. If local pages call out bad behavior, Barlow reasons, maybe that will create more pressure to demand accountability from clubs and leagues. And maybe, just maybe, more accountability could make people want to ref again.
“Before COVID, I felt like this behavior was reaching its peak,” Barlow says. “I thought with COVID shutting down sports for a while, maybe this would help our cause. Unfortunately, it was the exact opposite.
“These parents have this mentality of, ‘We pay all this money and travel all this way, we expect the best, and referees can’t make mistakes.’ It’s based on society saying it’s okay to yell at people in public if they’re not giving you what they want. It’s asinine.”
Abusive behavior is contributing to a steep decline in the nation’s youth and high school sports-officiating ranks. Even before the pandemic, the United States faced a massive shortage; in the coronavirus era, the problem has gotten worse. Similar to the bartenders, restaurant servers, and other customer service workers who have moved on to other jobs after getting fed up with low pay and poor treatment, the people who call U.S. under-12 travel soccer tournaments, high school basketball games and other local youth events have decided to call it quits.
“Sporting behavior has gotten worse,” said Barry Mano, founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO). “It’s harder to do this under this constant scrutiny. COVID opened the door that was ajar regarding the officiating shortage with people questioning, ‘Why am I doing this?’”
NASO estimates that 30 percent of officials have not returned during the pandemic – and of those, between 20 and 25 percent are expected to never come back. Since March 2020, NASO’s membership has dropped from 29,000 to 23,000.
Thousands of officiating associations across the country are experiencing similar declines. In Michigan, Mano says, high school officiating registration dropped from 13,000 to 8,800 in the last three years. Basketball referees in Wisconsin are down 18 percent and in Chicago, referees are fleeing the ranks of high school and youth football. In April, a consortium from the National Federation of State High School Associations met in Indianapolis to address the shortage and how to fix it.
Even in privileged areas that can afford to pay officials more money, youth and high school sports organizations are canceling games or working with smaller officiating crews. Coaches are being told to officiate games themselves if a ref doesn’t show up. Rookie high school football officials, who once had to wait five years to work a varsity game, are now immediately calling high-profile varsity contests.
“We’re putting people out there who are so new, and there’s going to be mistakes made,” says Phil Maslan, a veteran high school football referee in Maryland. “Who gets hurt at the end of the day? The players. Maybe it has to go too far to the extreme – with games being canceled, or serious injuries happening, or results influenced by horrific calls from non-trained parents – to serve as a wake-up call.
“It’s past the tipping point,” Maslan adds. “We’ve tipped. Now where do we go from here?”
There is no single solution to putting the country’s youth referees back on the field – or to curbing the bad behavior that is driving them away in the first place. And change won’t happen overnight. Still, people who know and love the profession believe that there are a few ways to jumpstart the process:
1. Pay officials more money. High school referees usually invest more time into training and studying rules than their youth sports counterparts, but their compensation doesn’t reflect that. A typical high school official might make $50 to $60 per game, or up to $125 for football in a state like Texas.
By contrast, on any given Saturday, an official can make $200 officiating a half-dozen 10-year-old games.
“If you really want to solve this, start paying $300 per game, and we’ll start getting an ample supply [of officials] in a hurry,” says NASO’s Mano. “But realistically, those kinds of resources aren’t there.”
“Nobody does this stuff to get rich, and the pay is never designed to be that,” Maslan said. “I honestly don’t know if there’s any amount of pay to lure more people into officiating. I think that’s a piece of the equation, but it won’t solve it. The problem is that coaches have more pressure on them, and desire to win. The parents and fans feed off the coaches and get angry. I can go through three hands the number of games I’ve officiated where police had to be called.”
2. Sports leagues and schools must better support officials. Since NASO started surveying officials in 1976, one stat has remained consistent – over 70 percent of them leave the profession for good during their first three years.
In almost any other industry, having seven of ten newcomers quit would lead to major changes. But in youth sports, that churn largely has been left unaddressed.
“If you’re the owner of organized competitions, you need to pay special attention to officiating,” Mano says. “They are an irreplaceable supply chain for your product and there’s so little attention being paid to making officiating be a good place to be.
“How are they treated? How are they greeted? How are they supported when somebody acts out? Those simple things need to be consistently addressed in a formal, public way, so officials want to work in your league.”
Safety is particularly important. In a NASO survey of more than 17,000 officials, almost half of the respondents said they have feared for theirs because of administrative, coach, spectator, or player behavior.
As such, Mano says, support means more than just paying officials on time instead of weeks or months later. It means promoting policies, in writing, addressing bad behavior. It means providing a halftime locker room in which officials can’t hear coaches and fans ranting about calls.
“We want to go where we’re wanted, where we feel safe, and where we have a belief the people in charge have an understanding of the value we bring,” he says. “Very little of that is done. They say, ‘We have some games, we’ll give you money, and just be there at 7 p.m.’”
3. Officials need to support each other. Mano also believes that the officiating community needs to look inward. There are a couple thousand local officiating associations across the country, but many lack welcoming and mentoring programs. Both are crucial.
“Shame on us that we don’t have a good welcoming system at the local level,” he says. “You come to the officials’ association meeting, you get welcomed and listen to the meeting, and that’s the end of it. Generally, we don’t do a good job with our own to make them feel secure and work with them.”
Becoming an official is like becoming a teacher. It’s a daunting task, and most people who leave the profession do so quickly. To help, officiating associations need to do a better job identifying good mentors for young officials. Mentors who have been through the battles and can offer advice on how to handle difficult game situations. Mentors who can be supportive when times inevitably get rough.
When mentoring does happen these days, it’s typically on a crew-by-crew basis. That’s helpful, but it fails to create systemic support, since change is common among crews annually and even during the same season. Officiating organizations can fill those gaps with broader formal mentorship programs.
4. Give officials a public voice. In professional and college sports, officials and leagues have mechanisms in place that allow them to defend calls and explain mistakes to the public. That kind of infrastructure rarely exists at the youth level, even though replay reviews, officiating consultants, and other broadcast staples have conditioned fans and viewers to believe that they know what good officiating looks like.
Maslan, who has officiated football for 15 years, estimates that 75% of the calls that high school coaches complain to him about are actually correct – and that confusion often arises because high school football has different rules than the levels above it.
“Calls are harder to make than 20 years ago,” he says. “The games are so much faster and so much more complex today. But wake up the next morning and that newspaper article has a complaint about officiating, and the officials don’t have a voice. Officials can’t speak up and say, ‘Here’s what really happened.’”
Creating sophisticated replay systems at the high school and youth level would be expensive and impractical. But it’s not impossible to allow officials to publicly explain themselves, or to let an administrator do that for them. If there was better education and transparency around officiating calls, maybe some fans might be less inclined to challenge them.
5. Focus on teaching new officials what they most need to know. Of course, officials do make mistakes. Rulebooks can be thick, complicated, and overwhelming, particularly for young, inexperienced, and poorly-paid referees.
But when it comes to ensuring the basic fairness and flow of a game, not all rules are equally important. If a young official is trying to master 10 different rules, Mano suggests instead teaching “the 4.5 rules that really matter. [Those] will give you survivability. Then you’ll learn the other 5.5. We need more time teaching survival skills and game management skills. Our industry is starting to come around to that.”
In other words, keep it simple. The most important skill for young officials these days is managing the game and all of the adults involved. Officials who develop this skill can hopefully reduce tensions and abusive behavior by coaches and fans before situations spiral out of control.
6. Don’t be afraid to publicly shame abusive fans and coaches. Some people believe that Barlow’s approach of posting videos of official abuse online is excessively harsh. Others, like Mano and Maslan, aren’t convinced that it works. “Does it have a material effect? “No,” Mano says. “But in this day and age, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. I’m glad the effort’s there.”
Barlow acknowledges that public shaming is controversial. But he also believes that it produces positive results – along with similar tactics, such as forcing fans to be silent on the sidelines or issuing fines to out-of-control spectators. “The No. 1 thing I tell people is if you see someone getting out of hand, pick up a camera to record them, and tell them to please stop acting like this,” he says. “One of two things happens. The person realizes what they’re doing and stops, or they’ll say, ‘Put your phone down and shut the (expletive) up.’”
Barlow says that he regularly receives legal threats from the people featured in the videos he shares. “Eventually, I get the emotion out of it and they realize they won’t bully me with their threats,” he says. “Then they’ll say they’re embarrassed and ashamed and won’t do it again.
“That’s when we make the most impact. It’s not their moment, it’s not their game. It’s the kids’ game, and these adults look ridiculous. I’m a very small sample, but I know it works.”
7. Adopt tough state laws protecting officials – and enforce them. According to NASO, 22 states as of last year had officiating assault and/or harassment laws – 20 with criminal laws and two with civil statutes. (View a state-by-state scorecard here.)
In Minnesota, legislators are close to passing a law allowing the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission to levy a $1,000 fine on violent or disruptive fans. The fine money may go toward youth sports initiatives – which state officials hope will encourage offenders from appealing, knowing that the money is going toward a good cause.
Under existing law, Minnesota high school principals can ban unruly fans from attending games for one year, but the State High School League does not track who’s on the banned list. If states lack the capacity to identify banned offenders and enforce policies, what’s the deterrent for bad behavior? The possible workaround in this latest bill: High schools and youth sports leagues would be required to report incidents to the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission.
“The reality is those laws do nothing at the point of conflict,” Barlow said. “No one thinks logically whenever they’re getting ready to beat a referee. The best way these laws will work is if we make it so uncomfortable with big fines and long sentences that they’ll think twice before going wild on the sideline.”
Even some state lawmakers go wild. Tennessee currently does not have any referee protection laws on its books. In January, a top Republican lawmaker in the state, Rep. Jeremy Faison, was ejected from a high school basketball game after either attempting or pretending to pull down a referee’s pants. Faison has since apologized, and state lawmakers are now considering a bill that would make assaulting a sports official a Class A misdemeanor or Class E felony.
8. Schedule fewer games or do more free play. The demand for officials has never been higher. But the supply has never been lower. So why not schedule fewer games, or play more pick-up games without referees?
The reality is that we have too many formal, play-for-keeps youth contests. Too many of our 8-year-olds are competing for regional and national championships.
Granted, the pay-for-play travel sports system needs these games for individual adults to profit. Local economies need these travel games to generate tourism dollars. And parents think – often incorrectly – that their children need all of these games to properly develop, and perhaps have a chance at a coveted college athletic scholarship.
But research shows that kids value playing with friends far more than winning games or chasing athletic scholarships. And early sports specialization can increase the risk of burnout and overuse injuries.
Turning down the competitive temperature would allow kids to develop their skills and have fun and let coaches pursue those goals instead of victories. It would also help parents and spectators to chill out.
All of that would be very good for our beleaguered officials. “If it weren’t for referees, you would just be watching your kids at recess – and eventually that’s what it’s going to be,” Barlow says. “Why are we keeping score on U8 or U10 games when it should be about development? Those are the games [where] we really don’t need refs.”
“The problem is at very young ages, the people who are in charge of games – and it ain’t the kids – want to win and put points on the board,” Mano adds. “If you want to play that mode, you need to have referees. It’s not us. We’re not lobbying for all these games.”
Even if all of the above suggestions were to become standard practice and considering that the average age of an official is 53, Mano believes that rebuilding the youth sports officiating pool will take years.
Jon Solomon is editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, whose main initiative is Project Play. Learn more about Project Play here.