Stopping The Abuse of Officials

Stopping The Abuse of Officials

Have you ever walked into a sports arena and heard parents yell:

“That was a foul!"

"What the ****!”

or “What the hell that wasn’t a penalty!”

Or sometimes even worse. 

It’s all a small part of a much larger problem which is the verbal harassment of sports officials. From hockey, to basketball, to football, and many other sports - these instances can either make or break an official. It doesn't matter whether they’re 15 or 35 - officials need to know how to handle those kinds of situations.

As mentioned this doesn't only apply to hockey, but as many in the hockey community will know, the number of of officials in our sport has dramatically decreased over the years.

There are many logical answers including a loss of interest, injury, or age. But the leading cause of the officiating shortage is the verbal harassment from parents, coaches and players.

According to the Amateur Hockey Association Illinois (AHAI), instances where officials have been harassed have increased by 15% since 2016.

This could be a leading factor in the shortage of officials. As of 2017, the AHAI only had 1,300 registered officials, which is a 10-12% reduction from the 2016 season. Once again AHAI found that 60% of those officials left due to abuse.

But local governing bodies have already started to crack down on these incidents. Many have adopted a zero-tolerance rule but it may not be the best option. This is the case with AHAI, where they've determined that if a coach decides to harass an official, the officials are allowed to immediately assess a warning, penalty and if needed they may throw the coach out.

By doing this the officials can have peace of mind knowing that they most likely won’t be harassed by the same coach again (but it may happen).

The Chicago Tribune wrote an article last year titled "Unsportsmanlike Conduct: AHAI Cites Uptick in Abuse of Hockey Referees". Author John Dunne explains the current situation by stating an experience where he was on his way to work a U18 game. 

He recalls that he got there early to evaluate a young official working a U10 game but the young officials partner did not show up and by the time Dunne had gotten on the ice the head coach of the home team had been thrown out for “abuse of officials”. Post-game, the coach kept on harassing the official for throwing him out of the game.

Another story comes from a close friend where after a game an assistant coach called him over to what he initially thought was to see the scoresheet, but then two parents began verbally abusing him.

They were saying things along the lines of "you’re a terrible ref", "you don’t know the rules at all", and the worst was "there’s a special place in hell for people like us" (given we were both working the game). But after the situation luckily the coach and team manager were able to help us in getting their names.

The real question is - why is this happening?

The answer to that is I have no idea. But I do have a theory. 

My theory is that parents and coaches teach the players that we are animals (where else did the nickname zebra come from).

It may sound silly but when you take into account the fact that children learn by example, and they hear parents and coaches dehumanizing officials, they believe it’s okay to do that because older role models do the same thing.

So if they are taught at a young age that the men and women in stripes are the enemy, as opposed to the people that are paid to keep them safe, that attitude persists when they grow up. 

Studies show that children learn and are affected by their surroundings, as in this case is their parents and coaches.

But by dehumanizing officials, coaches and parents believe they are able to influence them to do what they want to them to - because in their belief we aren't people, but mere 'animals' which leads to the possibility of verbal abuse and even possibly in a rare case physical assault.

Earlier this season my younger brother, a U10 player, had a game where a parent from the opposing team didn’t agree with the calls of the two officials working. Instead of writing to the governing body he took matters into his own hands and decided to storm into the officials dressing room. 

He proceeded to yell at the officials about how “incompetent” they were. This is a very rare case but it happens that one of the officials quit the very next week.

The problem isn’t with the players. The problem lies with the coaches and parents.

Now for the real topic what can be done?

Even though USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have done a lot to protect officials they can still do more such as putting in strict regulations on the abuse of officials and making zero-tolerance mandatory in every state/province.

Likewise, it may be smart to require coaches to certify as an official and to work at least two games and let them have the experience that we have on the ice. 

Importantly, any abuse of officials should be reported no matter what - and disciplinary actions would be taken.

When referees file complaints against coaches, if deemed valid, coaches should get “points” on their certifications and once they reach a certain level they would serve a suspension, which get subsequently longer for each infraction. This is similar to how the points system works with driver's licenses.

In my estimation, this type of system would be much easier to control than the current reports system because when a report is filed someone needs to read it and then it proceeds through a difficult process. A formal point system may offer a better option, where action can be taken much faster.

Since the abuse of officials stems a lot from the parents and coaches, which results in the impression on young players that it is okay to do, we need to effectively stop the cycle so that it doesn't continue beyond this generation. 

New systems of reporting abuse need to be implemented to lower the numbers of incidents that are occurring.

This problem is widespread, and while leading to officials quitting, may lead to more significant problems related to mental health. Let's solve this problem by updating systems and increase the accountability to those that are abusing officials. 

By: Eryk M. Przywara


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  • Ronald Alan Kramer

    An Open letter to Sports Administrators, Coaches and Parents

    After officiating thousands of youth, high school and college soccer, hockey and lacrosse
    games for over two decades, I am writing with a warning of impending failure and collapse
    of our current interscholastic sports model.

    We are at a tipping point, as our senior officials are rapidly aging out in many of these
    popular sports. Our current efforts to recruit new officials have failed to keep up with the
    number of retiring senior officials for a number of reasons.

    Here are the facts:
    1. Senior officials are rapidly aging out.
    2. Recruitment and retention of new officials is not at pace with retiring officials.
    3. Fewer officials means fewer games.
    4. No officials mean no games.

    Here is the cause and effect:
    1. Poor sportsmanship and inappropriate behavior by coaches, parents and players.
    2. Marginal compensation.
    3. Lack of organizational leadership and accountability at the clubs and high schools.

    As the lead for recruiting new officials in hockey, soccer and lacrosse for the past several
    years, I have met with, talked to and reached out to hundreds of potential candidates. The
    number one response I get is “Are you crazy? You guys get treated like sh..t!” There it is.
    Perception becomes reality and often the truth. If the athletic field is an extension of the classroom then why is poor behavior tolerated in our youth sports? As adults we need to ensure that all participants, including game
    officials, feel safe and are protected from unreasonable and inappropriate behavior. In
    other words, a “safe space” to compete, perform and grow for all involved. Unfortunately,
    that isn’t the case today.

    I appreciate the effort sports organizations have made to ensure players are protected from
    sexual predators, and fully endorse fingerprinting and background checks. However, I
    question why a similar effort has not been made to ensure the protection of officials. I am
    going out on a limb by assuming that the harassment of officials is far greater to the
    number of sexual incidents by officials toward student athletes by a factor of 1,000 to 1.
    Eliminating inappropriate behavior in our sports organizations need not be costly or
    involved. It simply needs to start from the top down. I would like to offer the following
    ideas toward a working solution.

    1. Establish a written zero tolerance with an accountability process from the top down.
    2. Require signed contracts from coaches, players and parents acknowledging a
    written code of conduct.
    3. Enforce stiff penalties for violations of the code of conduct, including suspension,
    fines and banishment.
    4. Establish consistent training and mechanics for officials of all sports on effective
    ways to deal with sportsmanship related issues.

    We are at a tipping point and we need action. Radio ads or recruiting posters are not
    effective in recruiting new officials. We need to stop the yelling and berating of our kids,
    coaches and officials. This is not tolerated anywhere but the sports field, and it is
    degrading and defining sports today.

    Let’s take action, by holding coaches, players parents and officials accountable for their
    behavior on and off the field. This ensures a safe space for everyone who participates in our
    sports. Our future depends on it.

    Ron Kramer
    South Portland, Maine
    Sr. Sports Official, Hockey, Lacrosse, Soccer

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