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Brooke de Lench
Brooke de Lench
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Assaults on Youth Sports Referees: When Will They Stop?

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Every day when I come to work one of the first things I do is check the e-mails I get from parents and coaches all across the country with stories from newspapers about youth sports, including one from Moms Team expert, Doug Abrams.

Most days Doug's e-mail reprints articles on a wide variety of youth sports topics, from acts of sportsmanship of the kind he writes about in his monthly column for MomsTeam on youth sports heroes, to articles about the tragic deaths of youth athletes - like Wes Leonard, who suffered sudden cardiac arrest from an undetected congenital heart condition - to a Long Island wrestler contracting and almost dying from MRSA.

Football refereeBut this morning's e-mail from Doug was different because the first three stories were all about the same thing: assaults on and abuse of youth sports referees.

First up: a column from the Winnipeg Sun about a youth hockey coach who shoved a 15-year-old referee.  The coach was suspended, but didn't get charged with assault. The incident prompted the president of Hockey Winnipeg, Don McIntosh, to send out an e-mail urging local hockey officials to help crack down on abuse against referees.

Next, another story from the same paper saying that physical and verbal attacks on hockey officials by players and coaches had reached "epidemic" levels.

The third was an article from the Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell, Montana reporting that the city attorney was considering an assault charge against a man for grabbing a 20-year veteran referee, Dave Reese, so hard following a recent high school boys' basketball game that he left marks on the referee's chest.  Not surprisingly, the man was apparently related to one of the players on the losing team.  The article recounted several other recent incidents of violence against sports officials.  

The president of the local sports officials' organization, Todd Fiske, told the newspaper that the pressure on officials lead many to quit within five years, and warned that the assault on Reese was the type of incident that harms the recruitment of new officials.  "Something like that is just so unneeded in what we do already," he told the paper. "It's a game. We can't ever let it get bigger than that."

Fiske's sentiments were echoed by Don McIntosh, the Hockey Manitoba head: "I'm told that referees are quitting because of abuse. Senior or management referees who we have in our system will tell you that.  Referees are a very valuable and important part of our game," he said. "Our game couldn't go without them."

Not surprisingly, surveys show that spectator abuse is one of the major reasons for the shortage of sports officials.

But what can be done about the abuse?

One thing states around the country are trying is to make it a crime to assault a sports official.  As MomsTeam columnist, Don Collins recently reported, there are currently nineteen states, including Montana, that make it a crime to assault a sports official, with West Virginia about to become the 20th. Unfortunately, the anecdotal reports of the assaults which continue to occur (and which continue to clog my e-mail box) and the fact that, even when there is a law on the books, it often times isn't enforced, suggests that the laws aren't working.

The real answer, of course, is to change in the culture of youth sports so that verbally or physically assaulting or abusing officials is seen by coaches, parents and players as something that simply isn't acceptable in sports.  

It's pretty simple: game officials deserve the respect of coaches, players and parents. At all times. No matter what. 

But unless and until everyone involved in youth sports is willing to take a zero tolerance approach to referee abuse, the sad fact is that I will continue to get e-mails like the ones I got today.

What do you think can be done to fight the epidemic of referee abuse? Send your thoughts to me at delench@MomsTeam.com.