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Is parental abuse causing a shortage of youth sports referees?

There's a shortage of referees and umpires in youth sports, and experts are blaming parents. (Image source: YouTube screencap)

The umpires and referees who officiate youth sporting events often do so not only for a few extra bucks but also for love of the sports. But as some organizations across the country are expressing alarm that there's a shortage of refs, experts and officials are speculating as to why.

What's going on?

Referees and umpires have said that pressure from the sidelines is a major — if not the most significant — contributing factor for leaving the profession.

Former soccer referee Ryan Chmura explained to the Chicago Tribune that he quit officiating because "it just became too stressful. No matter what call I made, I would have parents yelling, screaming. And this could be (games with) 6- and 7-year-olds."

Chmura is far from alone. Organizations responsible for staffing officials for baseball, basketball, softball, football, and soccer alike have expressed frustration over the poor retention rates of refs from year to year — meaning a constant need for recruitment efforts.

Andre Jones of the Fairfax County Football Officials Association in Virginia told the Washington Post that he has seen an estimated 40 percent drop in refs over the past three years.

Where shortages exist, of course, the frustration of officials, spectators, and players is heightened when dealing with fewer (and less experienced) eyes available to call plays.

What can be done?

Many blame an escalation of abuse on social media — with parents often expressing their public frustration virally over a perceived bad call. Whether or not that's the case, one Oklahoma youth soccer referee is fighting back with the same weapon.

On Wednesday, the New York Times told the story of Brian Barlow, who operates a Facebook page called Offside where he posts videos of bad behavior by parents to publicly shame them. And considering the prevalence of instances (not to mention the fact that he pays $100 for each submitted clip), there's no shortage of examples of folks acting like what he calls "cheeseburgers."

Barlow told the Times, "I do it to hold people accountable — to identify and call out the small percentage of parents who nonetheless create a toxic environment at youth sports. It's a very visual deterrent, and not just to the person caught on video but to others who ask themselves: Do I look like that jerk?"

Footage of parents attacking coaches, refs, other parents, and even players is becoming more prevalent — often with kids trying to step in and stop the adults from fighting. Barlow also uses his page to praise good deeds and sportsmanship in an effort to encourage parents and athletes to lead by example.

But it's not just the refs who appear to be leaving the field. The number of kids participating in youth sports is reportedly dropping too, with some experts blaming pressure from parents as a key factor.

Others speculate that as youth sports become more and more elite, it just isn't worth the time or expense for parents — and that kids have higher priorities and outside pressures as they get older. Those same reasons may well be impacting officials, too. And without definitive evidence pointing to why there's a reported drop in participation, there could be a number of factors at play.

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