Why no one wants to officiate youth sports - and what to do about it

Why no one wants to officiate youth sports - and what to do about it


By Kate Nematollahi

Director, NAYS Education Programs

Everyone remembers their first job. A camp counselor, paper route, scooping ice cream, cutting grass, whatever it may be, there is an excitement to it. A teenager’s first step toward adulthood. A newfound responsibility.

My first job was thus far the most difficult job I have ever had. Officiating youth basketball for the local parks and recreation department.

At the time, I was 14-years-old and on the junior varsity high school team. I loved basketball and played in the rec league since I was 5 so when the program coordinator asked if I was interested in becoming an official I was thrilled.

He explained the position. On Saturday mornings I would officiate three or four games for young girls between 5 and 10 years old and make $10 per game. It seemed like it would be a cake walk. My days of doing chores for a measly allowance were over, I thought.

Before the season began I attended a training session for new basketball officials. We met at the middle school gym and the program coordinator went over the rules, the signals, where to stand on the court, how to keep the book and work the scoreboard, and we received our uniforms and whistles. Everything we needed to know, right? Later, I learned that an important topic was missing: how to deal with coaches and parents.

I came to dread Saturdays.

I remember holding back tears in the gym then crying in the car after a game because the spectators were so harsh. (Keep in mind that as a 14-year-old, it was my mom’s car since I wasn’t old enough to drive.)

At that age, I did not understand why parents in the stands were yelling at me and belittling me when I was trying my best to officiate a rec league game for 7- and 8-year-old kids. In one case it was someone who I had personally known since I was a toddler.

One thing I knew, my friends who were scooping ice cream and lifeguarding were not being yelled at by customers while trying to do their job.

And I wasn’t that bad of a referee. I probably called the game correctly 90% of the time. That’s an A in my book. What do you really expect from a youth sports official?

(Below: That's me on the left after a freshman basketball game, making a hideous face. This shows my maturity level. On the right is my sister, Alison, who was on varsity.)

I asked the program coordinator what to do about the out-of-control parents. He said it was up to me to keep control of the game and that I could eject anyone from the gym if things got out of hand.

Wonderful. So the decision on how to deal with absolutely inappropriate, rude, screaming adults was left to a girl with braces and no driver’s license. That makes sense. Talk about an unexpected responsibility for your first job as a teenager.

Regardless, I was prepared to try it out the following week. Any parent or coach who started to get out of hand, I would eject.

The first quarter of the first game there was a parent who stood up and yelled out, “jump ball! That was a jump ball, ref!” I went over to the parent and asked him to leave the gym. Admittedly, this was not a moment that warranted an ejection. And as you might guess, this did not go well. Imagine more parents yelling and the team’s coach now sticking up for the parent. What a disaster.

You may think that after my first season I decided to take on a paper route instead. But, I stuck around for four years of torture. Probably because I earned an additional $1 per game every year I came back. Or maybe because it was the only job I could find that I could work for only three hours per week.

Of course, it was not all negative.

I loved seeing the girls’ faces when they made a basket for the first time. They would literally jump up and down and hug each other. I enjoyed explaining the rules to them and shooting around with them after the game. They thought a high school basketball player was a celebrity.

There were plenty of coaches and parents who told me I was doing a great job. I became a more confident and skilled official. Also, I eventually learned how to cope with the bullying behavior from adults.

Or so I thought.

Fast forward to just a few years ago. I had been working for the National Alliance for Youth Sports for a couple of years and wanted to get involved with youth sports at the local level. I volunteered to referee for a recreational basketball program.

No, I didn’t forget what happened as a teenager but I told myself: I’m an adult now, I am more mature, things will be different, I work for an organization that is dedicated to positive and safe sports for kids, I am sure I can handle this.

It was the same story. No, worse.

One of my first games I was officiating by myself and called a holding foul. (When 5-year-olds are learning basketball they sometimes think they can hug their opponent from behind to stop them from dribbling.) The next thing I knew I was being chased around the court by a parent. What the heck? This has never happened before. I blew my whistle. The stands were so loud that no one could hear my whistle.

Yes, you are picturing this correctly. Me running around the gym at a community center blowing my whistle continuously while some woman was chasing me in what probably looked like a game of tag.

But are you also imagining the 5- and 6-year-old boys standing in the middle of the court with blank stares? Kindergarteners and first graders. They seemed so embarrassed of their parents. How did the parents not see how ridiculous they were being?

The league directors had an “it is what it is...” explanation for the parent behavior. After that incident two officials were placed on each game but the behavior was tolerated. It was part of the program culture.

It’s insane that this goes on. Insane.

In a recent survey, 87% of officials said they suffer verbal abuse. So my experiences are not unique. Maybe not being chased around the court, but for some reason, the fact that adults harass officials at youth sports events is so common that it doesn’t surprise us.

What’s sad it that we are teaching children that this is how to behave. This is how to treat other people. People who are giving their time, for little to no money, to support their child’s youth sports league. It’s no wonder that there’s a shortage of youth sports referees.

If nothing is done, the problem will continue. There is a new batch of sports parents every year. Parents who will experience all of the emotions of watching their baby put on a uniform and try their best. They will learn from others what behavior is accepted and what is not. If parents are not educated and shown a proper example, they will likely mimic the behavior of professional and collegiate level sports fans, which can be rambunctious and negative.

A positive youth sports culture is possible.

How? By making it a priority to have a positive youth sports culture. By program leaders and coaches saying, “that’s not how we do things here.” By establishing organizational philosophies and policies that make unsportsmanlike behavior unacceptable. By educating coaches, parents, officials and league directors about behavior expectations and what happens when someone crosses the line. By recognizing people who are doing it right.

But not by leaving it up to chance. And not by leaving it up to a teenage official at her first job.

Officiating Parenting Behavior

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