Referees, Youth Sports, and Border-line PTSD

Western Pennsylvania is an interesting geographical area.  From Washington up to Erie, back down to Pittsburgh, and all the way over to Johnstown you have a blend of over four million people who seemingly represent every subset of the United States population.  More than anything, though, Western Pennsylvania loves sports.

Of course, football reigns supreme, but wrestling and baseball draw big crowds, while basketball and soccer enjoy decent sized followings depending one where you live or how terrible your football or baseball teams are.  Honestly, Western Pa. is kind of boring outside of places like Pittsburgh or Erie, so sports fill a void that can’t really be filled through other means.  For every six-year old kid excited for baseball practice because it gets him away from his schoolwork there’s a 45-year old guy who works in a factory excited for the Steelers on Sunday because it allows him to escape a job he hates.

Really, sports are the one constant in Western Pa.  It’s the one thing everyone can agree on, it’s a great ice-breaker when meeting strangers, and it’s a source of pride since many notable professional athletes have hailed from Western Pa.

So while athletics are an important part of the Western Pa. culture, I was not surprised when I heard the number of referees needed to officiate youth and high school sports was decreasing, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

You see, since sports are such a prevalent, all-encompassing hobby in this area, it leads followers to be especially passionate about the issue.  However, Western Pa. is also known for a particularly brash, blunt, somewhat standoff-ish demographic of human beings; yinzers (you’ve probably heard as a colloquial terminology).  When you mix yinzers and passions, you get an unwanted mixture of horrifying, despicable emotions.

I began playing sports at a young age.  I quickly became pretty good at soccer and baseball so I figured I would just stick with those to keep myself busy until I started a blog at age 23.  The first time I ever dealt with particularly brash parents was during a soccer game at age nine.  I was playing for the Falcons, my youth soccer team, against another team who was coached by a notorious butt-nugget who I won’t name.  Anyway, I can distinctly remember him (on several occasions) screaming at the referees who were volunteering their time to officiate games.  Notice the word volunteering:  At this point, my youth league didn’t have much money and we played our games in the outside of an old baseball field at an old park which hosted the old county fair.  So referees conducted their business on a volunteer level and it usually consisted of mostly parents.  You can imagine my uneasiness when I watched a grown, adult man jeer a volunteer parent for missing a call, an action I noticed was ridiculous even as a nine-year old.

Anyway, soccer season came to an end and I began baseball season, where I was moved up to the “major league”, which simply referred to the league kids 10 and over played in.  Fortunately, this league had a little bit more money, so the umpires were paid, but the parental nonsense was equally as bad.  In fact, one of my coaches (who is a Pennsylvania State Trooper) once completely lost his mind arguing balls and strikes with an umpire, an action that will get a manager in the MLB tossed.  On numerous occasions I watched parents scream at officials, coaches scream at officials and generally just stupid adults yelling at other equally stupid adults.  But I was 10 and having fun, so it never bothered me that much (and was also hilarious).  Two years later, it was time to decide if I wanted to play junior league baseball, a move I declined because the same coach and many of the more despised parents in little league would be attending all he games.  Yeah, no thanks.

So, I decided to focus on soccer.  By the time I was playing varsity soccer, I was shocked at some of the things I heard parents saying to referees.  One of my friends had a dad who was Italian, and he frequently screamed obscenities at the referees in Italian and even got escorted off the premises of several games.  Sure, it was morbidly hilarious at the time, but for God’s sake, it’s a soccer game.  The other idiot I mentioned a few paragraphs ago was also very loud an unruly, while several other pairs of ancillary parents made themselves look stupid as well.  Even worse was my spring soccer league.  This time, the league had enough money to pay referees, and they were nice enough to offer a class to teach younger kids how to officiate.  So if you were over the age of 14 and had a Saturday afternoon free, you could become a certified official and make $10 a game refereeing the youth soccer games; not bad work for a teenager.  Of course, doing this SUCKED because even though you were a 15-year old kid, parents still frequently berated you until you wanted to quit and go play Legos are whatever I did when I was 15.

A little over a year ago, I worked as a writer at a local newspaper where I was pretty much the main guy when it came to covering local high school sports.  After that experience, I’m not sure I’d ever want to cover high school sports again.  You see, I usually covered games, whether football, basketball, soccer, etc, from either the stands or on the sidelines.  Volleyball was by far the worst because there was always this group of three of four parents who were unbelievable tools.  One game, (and I’ll never forget this) one of the members of this group flipped out over a call, screamed at the ref, and when the ref didn’t acknowledge him he referred to him by his first name and then screamed at the top of his lungs, “That is a TERRIBLE call, Mike!”  By now, the gym was pretty much dead silent and this gigantic moron had embarrassed himself, humiliated his daughter, and probably made himself a new enemy.  Oh, did I mention this angry father was (and still is) an assistant coach on this high school’s football team?  And one time during a football game he was in the press box (because he’s the offensive coordinator, duh) and screamed at the top of his lungs like a child at the referee about a bad call on the field.  Best of all, if my memory serves I’m actually fairly certain the guy made the correct call.

I’m aware of the “living vicariously through their children” stereotype typically afforded to obnoxious parents, but when you see a kid visibly embarrassed because his dad threw a temper tantrum, it’s pretty hard to justify vicarious living.

At any level, whether it be youth, high school, or an actual, hulking Ed Houchulli-sized referee, it shouldn’t be okay to fly off the handle and yell like a psychopath.  Let’s use a professional referee as an example:  So an NFL referee is jogging down the field, watching the play happen, and a long ball is thrown.  The wide receiver drops it, and it looks like the defensive back made illegal contact with him of the play, but the ref holds on to his flag.  Of course, the coach goes ballistic on the field; getting up in the refs face, screaming until he’s red, telling the ref he’s terrible, and probably insulting his mother.  Usually, people laugh, and some announcers (looking at you, Phil Simms) even justify the behavior of an insane coach.  Okay, now let’s check the inverse scenario:  The coach radios a play to his quarterback, the quarterback drops back to pass, and is immediately sacked because of a breakdown in pass protection.  So, the referee runs over to the sideline, gets right in the coaches face and screams, “Oh my god that’s the worst play-call I’ve ever seen!  You are an idiot, making blind calls, the rest of your coaches suck, and so does your mom, nerd.”  Basically the exact same scenario: one professional screaming like an idiot and insulting another.  But, for some reason, only one of those actions is considered justifiable.

And this process repeats itself in real life. If a kid blows up an orphanage people blame it on Grand Theft Auto, so it makes sense an adult male might be influenced by the actions of a highly paid 56-year old man with type 2 diabetes claiming that play was, in fact, defensive pass interference.  But my earlier example was a professional example.  Geesh, NFL referees can make upwards of $200,000 per season; I’d certainly let Andy Reid yell at me every Sunday for that much cash.  A PIAA official like you would see officiating a basketball game usually makes about $50 a game, while a youth official rakes in anywhere from $10-25.  So, since amateur officials are basically volunteering their time, this would be the equivalent of walking into an animal shelter and getting belligerent with the elderly woman who feeds the cats part-time because your dog didn’t get his rabies shot in under an hour.

For some reason, and I’ll never know why, people act as if courts and fields have invisible walls blocking their perimeters where anything they say is heard but there’s no consequences.  If you walked into a Walmart and started screaming at a janitor you are going to jail, but if you lambast a 13-year old who is spending their Saturday trying to make enough money for his first, awkward, entirely nonverbal date, there are literally no ramifications whatsoever.  People get this idea that their actions are justified because they are acting with such lunacy no one in the stands is going to confront them. The officials certainly won’t do anything, so they proceed as if the world owes them that handball call.  Everyone has a breaking point; Ron Artest proved that years ago when he charged into the stands and knocked out a fan before he was even able to suggest an alternative route of conflict resolution.  Artest was a player, granted, but you can’t tell me there’s not a referee on earth who hasn’t fantasized about sucker-punching some obnoxious idiot in the peanut gallery.

Parents, especially, seem wont to pass the blame on anyone but themselves.  They blame the coach because their son isn’t getting any playing time; they don’t blame themselves for making him pudgy and weird in the first place.  They blame “the sport” for being to rough and hurting their kids; they don’t blame themselves for allowing their seven-year old to strap on a helmet and play a contact sport.  They blame officials for getting a call wrong; they don’t step back and realize “Hey, this guy is human, we all make mistakes, and there’s no greater mistake than making an idiot out of myself in front of my kid’s entire social circle and their parents.”

I realize I’ve made a fair deal of generalizations throughout this article.  But, I also realize not all parents are like this.  Mine certainly weren’t.  Neither were most of my friends’ parents.  But obnoxious parents are like gun owners; only a small percentage are insane, but that’s enough to make the rest of us nervous.  If you’re a parent, I hope this makes you take a step back and consider your behavior.  If you are like most people and accept a game is a game and that missed call is not a big deal, then good, I encourage you to change nothing.  If you are one of these parents who screams like a child with a full diaper at every questionable err in judgment an official makes, then I ask that you perhaps reevaluate certain aspects of your life:  What’s really important?  Who do you want to be?  Is this the most humiliated my kid will feel in their entire life (yes, probably)?  Also consider this name: Don Denkinger.  In game 6 of the 1985 World Series, the Cardinals were clinging to a 3-2 game lead over intrastate rival Kansas City and leading by one run in the bottom of the 9th inning.  A Royals batter hit a slow roller and looked to be out at first base, but Denkinger called him safe.  Other details happened, but the Royals ended up winning game 6 because of a blown call, and won game 7 the next night, clinching a World Series title.  For all intents and purposes, Denkinger cost the Cardinals the World Series, and I guarantee not a single person outside the state of Missouri is even aware of him.  Point being, even the most awful of bad calls can be forgotten, especially when your teams wins a pair of World Series titles since that date, like the Cardinals did.

So as you can see, complaining and yelling at referees makes you look really stupid, embarrasses your kids, and just generally makes you come off as an arrogant moron.  Since the number of referees actually wanting to subject themselves to that punishment is declining (because, duh) parents who scream about bad calls that “ruin the game” are managing to offend the guys who actually oversee the game.  And a lack of officials will probably “ruin the game” more than a few missed balls or a bogus offsides.

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