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"Let's Put Bad Parents in a Box"

Referees are fleeing youth sports because of anger on the sidelines—here’s a proposal to quiet the bad apples

By Jason Gay (Wall Street Journal)
June 22, 2017 12:50 p.m. ET

The Washington Post recently published an alarming story detailing the shortages of referees for youth sports in the D.C. region. Sports like baseball, soccer and football have all been impacted. The head of a Mid-Atlantic officials association said the baseball umpire shortage was the worst in 25 years. In football, the referee pool dropped a grim 40%.

Officiating youth sports isn’t a glamour job, to say the least. The pay isn’t life-changing, travel can be a pain, and it’s often weekend and evening work. On top of that, you have to watch a lot of terrible youth sports.

But numerous sources gave the Post a different reason for the current referee shortage:


That’s right: yelling, complaining, entitled, know-it-all, rotten, difficult, impossible, no-good parents—driving away perfectly decent citizens making small wages trying to help their children play meaningless games for exercise and fun.  “There’s no moral fiber left in our society,” Dennis Hall, the Virginia Football Officials Association commissioner, told the Post. “People think because they paid to get into the game, they can say and do anything they want, and they think they know the rules better than the officials because they watch television.”

Yowza. Just out of curiosity: What is the penalty for the decline of moral fiber in society?

It’s got to be at least 15 yards.

I read the Post story with a combination of horror and utter lack of surprise. If you’ve ever walked within a quarter mile of a youth sporting event in America, you’ve probably witnessed some ugly parental behavior. As a former Little League ump and youth basketball ref, I’m sadly familiar with the rage of fathers and mothers—as well as their spittle.

It sounds like things today are far, far worse.

I’ve never understood crazy sports parents—what motivates an otherwise law-abiding citizen to act out on the sidelines of a game played by children. What satisfaction do they find by hounding coaches for playing time, or harassing referees for perceived mistakes? Do these parents think they’re being constructive? Are they acting out past childhood traumas? Are they Knicks fans?

It’s tempting to see a correlation between the decline of civility in American public life and parental obnoxiousness in sports. If we can’t board an airplane without the chance of a fistfight—or log on to Facebook without being bombarded by all-caps invective from relatives we never even knew we had—it’s no wonder that a kiddie soccer game could lead to adult-size trouble.

It doesn’t make it any less pathetic. For all the talk radio ranting about everybody-gets-a-trophy culture in youth sports, it’s parents who are truly the toxic sauce. The Post story makes clear: Referees are not quitting because everybody’s getting a trophy. They’re quitting because they’re sick of parents chasing them to their Mazdas in the parking lot.

And we haven’t even gotten to the impact upon the kids themselves, looking over at the sidelines and seeing Dad and Mom behaving like deranged lunatics. What is the long-term cost there?

30 YEARS IN THE FUTURE: THERAPIST Why are you nervous all the time? FORMER YOUTH SPORTS ATHLETE I don’t know. I just think it goes back to the time my Dad tackled the umpire at home plate and sat on him.

I guess I could come up with some long-term strategy here, in which I propose an awareness campaign and a cultural shift in which parents learn to respect refs and coaches and stop obsessing over 12-and-under games. That’s a nice if quixotic idea, and I encourage anyone to pursue it.

For the record, I’m also OK with light prison sentences for bad sports parents. They don’t have to be imprisoned with the general population—just keep them in a separate wing where they can prep snacks and orange slices.

I doubt I can rally support for incarceration, however. So I’m suggesting something else:

A plastic box.

That’s right: a 10-by-10 plexiglass box, with small air holes at the top, set down on the sidelines of all youth sports fields in America. Problem parents would be escorted into the plastic box, where they could yell and scream and rudely gesticulate as much as they wanted, and the coaches, referees and the rest of us could enjoy the game in peace.

I don’t mean to brag, but I think this idea is a winner. I believe there’ll be parents who will volunteer to stand in the plastic box.

(I know you’re worried about costs, but it wouldn’t be so expensive. Just put a small tax on every uniform or ice cream sold at the ice cream truck. Parents are already paying a fortune for youth sports—they won’t even notice the plastic box tax.)

Yes: we’ve got to do better as a country. We’ve allowed human interaction to coarsen to the point where courtesy feels not like a baseline requirement, but a luxury. We’ve got to stop all the useless yelling: in the workplace, in politics, online, and definitely on the youth sports arena.

Until then, however, I suggest a plastic box.

Jason Gay.  Writer for the Wall Street Journal

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