The Ongoing Issue of Referee Abuse in Youth Sports

Referee abuse

What’s behind it and what’s the answer?

I discussed in a previous post the increasing shortage of youth sports referees. The shortage is due to the increase in verbal abuse and physical threats by players, coaches and parents, and lack of support from league and school administrators.  I’m referring to the hundreds of thousands of referees, umpires who officiate in youth sports leagues across the the country. These officials are both male and female, and many are under 18 years of age.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials, 87 percent of of the 17,000 referee participants suffered verbal abuse in their role as officials. Thirteen percent said they had been subjected to a physical assaulted before, during, or after a game. That’s almost one out of every seven officials claiming abuse of some sort.

Sadly, not many people seem willing to do anything about this trend. Worse, even fewer take into consideration how many of those suffering such assaults are, in fact, children. Seventy-two percent of youth soccer referees for leagues affiliated with the U.S. Soccer Federation are under 19 years of age.  Nearly 80 percent of the referees in Kentucky are 18 years of age or younger. Sixty-nine percent of Minnesota’s referees are kids under the age of 14.

The youngest and least experienced referees typically start officiating games at the youngest age levels. The theory is that these less competitive games offer them a learning experience with little stress. Ironically, it turns out that the games involving younger aged players frequently lead to the most referee abuse.

The problem of attrition

As we reported earlier, the verbal abuse and physical intimidation drives many young referees out of the game altogether. U.S. Soccer reports that approximately 60 percent of referees don’t return for a second year. This necessitates more inexperienced referees being recruited to train among those younger-age matches. The results is a perpetual cycle of abuse, departure and recruitment.

Some of the reasons for the abuse include:

  • Pressure to win
  • Parents who pay constantly escalating fees feeling entitled to yell at the referees
  • The general diminishment of respect for authority.
  • Parents, players and coaches expecting professional level officiatiating

What can be done?

The obvious thing would be for conversations to take place among administrators, coaches, parents, and players regarding respectful treatment of officials. Without this discussion, nothing will improve.

But some leagues leagues and organizations are taking drastic measures. One  Kentucky league is fining clubs $250 for every parent that is ordered to leave for poor behavior. Others have gone a step further, completely banning all cheering –  positive and negative – from the sidelines.

Michigan state senator Morris Hood proposed legislation to create stiffer legal penalties for assaulting an official. The bill was stalled but Hood is reintroducing it this year.

One referee administrator with U.S. Soccer suggests empathy is the answer:  ask parents and other spectators to step into the role of referee for one year to experience the other side of officiating.

One painful response was the one with which Ryan Hampson came up with in London last year. The 18-year-old rallied his fellow officials to go on strike, which resulted in him meeting with the Football Association’s most senior officials about referee safety. Hampson wisely points out that most officials are paid for their services, and nobody should accept verbal or physical abuse in the workplace. Even if the workplace is a baseball diamond, basketball court or soccer pitch. Out of the mouths of babes.

Sadler’s connection to referees and umpires

Sadler Insurance includes among its clients many referee and umpires associations. We provide anaffordable Accident and General Liability insurance programs to insure these umpire / referee associations and their workers. Our clients have experienced cases where referees have been injured due to assault & battery resulting in Accident claims and where umpires have been sued arising out of defending themselves and resulting General Liability claims.

Also, as a soccer parent, I’ve been an eyewitness to insults and threats against referees by out of control parents.


Source: Tim Froh.“‘My under-10 matches are the worst’: no end in sight to youth referee abuse.”   theguardian.com. 16 April, 2018.
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