Since the dawn of time there have been zealous parents; men and women who have scrimped and sacrificed, battled and cajoled, walked five miles and sat for hours — all in hopes of helping a beloved child. It comes with the territory, this need to protect, to promote, to ensure a clear path for future generations.
In the past few years, however, that zealousness has curdled into outright obnoxiousness. Meddling has developed into sabotage. And while schools — college campuses, even — are rife with horror stories of helicopter parents, the damage from this overwrought behavior is particularly jaw-dropping on the courts and playing fields.
A dad punches a coach for not playing his son.
A mom decks another for yelling at her daughter.
Two fathers are ejected from the stands for getting into a fistfight.
Unfortunately, I’m not making any of these scenes up. Back in the day, when my now-adult children were playing organized sports, I either witnessed these out-of-control actions or heard about them from other appalled parents. Adults who should’ve known better, who should’ve tried to model appropriate responses to close calls, instead acted like tantrum-throwing 2-year-olds. Often the children themselves were embarrassed by their parents.
Now, as difficult as it is for me to believe, things have only grown worse.
Unruly parents have gotten so bad, so loud, so violent that youth league sports is having a hard time recruiting referees and umpires. Retaining them is almost impossible, too. And, well, of course. With low pay, no benefits and long hours, the men and women who ref kids’ sports receive neither gratitude nor pleasure — but plenty of abuse.
Jeering, a bleacher sport with a long and not-so-illustrious history, is apparently the least of it. In the era of social media, police escorts are no match for the vitriol on social media. Refs report getting trolled online, even before they get home to unlace their sneakers.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 80 percent of high school officials put away their stripes and whistles after their third year. It’s a national crisis that is already changing youth sports, as organizers scramble to find trained arbitrators willing to take the field and the abuse. As a result games are being cancelled or postponed, and park leagues are threatened with extinction.
Misbehaving parents shoulder much of the blame for the shortage of youth sports officials. Living vicariously through their children, hoping to score the holy grail of a college scholarship or (be-still-my heart) professional contract, they act as if every game were the Super Bowl or the World Series. Perspective has become as endangered as a lowland gorilla. Parents may be spitting at referees, but they’re also dressing down 8-year-olds for a missed play.
“They need to remember that many of the officials at this level are doing it to give back to kids, remember that the kids don’t play a perfect game, coaches don’t coach a perfect game and certainly our officials aren’t going to officiate a perfect game,” NFHS Executive Director Bob Gardner told NBC’s “Today” show.
An epidemic of foul-mouthed coarseness and incivility is sweeping the country; sadly, it has settled in a place that should be free of adult stupidity. Those who want better are scrambling for solutions. In Florida, a law makes assaulting a referee or other sports official a felony in most cases; but such incidents are rarely reported to police, let alone prosecuted. In South Carolina, the high school association is being forced to cancel or postpone games. And many leagues now provide some form of police presence and penalize coaches for the sordid behavior of their spectator parents.
Apparently it’s not the children who need a time-out, but those entrusted with instilling values. How sad that it has come to this; how shameful.