The ruling that could help change the face of youth sports.

A sign attached to the fence surrounding a baseball diamond reads: Before You Complain…Have You Volunteered Yet? It attests to the toxicity of angry parents in youth sports, an unfortunate phenomenon that’s garnering more and more attention.

On soccer fields, baseball diamonds, and basketball courts everywhere, it’s a common occurrence to see an irate parent screaming at an official, even as the players and coaches are keeping their cool.

But referees and umpires have had enough. They’re volunteers, many of whom are retirees who once played or coached the game, or else teenagers learning the ropes. It’s a tough job.

No matter the call, they’re bound to make one side unhappy. They may try to be thick-skinned, but more and more outbursts by parents at youth sports games are turning into full on abuse.

One Town Takes a Stand

It go so bad in Deptford, New Jersey (a suburb of Philadelphia) that the Little League was having a hard time keeping its umpires. “They’re coming here, they’re being abused, they don’t need that, so they’re walking away,” said the President of the town’s Little League. 

When two of the association’s umpires quit in a single week, they knew it was time to take action. And their decision has caught the attention of parents, officials, coaches and players in youth sports nationwide.

It’s simple: If a parent (or any other spectator) fights with an umpire, they’re banned from all games until they’ve suited up and officiated for at least three games.

The idea is not that the spectator is expected to make all the calls without training—it’s for them to get out there on the field with a trained umpire so that they can see just how hard it is.

“People are very comfortable making officials feel uncomfortable. It’s about time we reversed that trend and started making people uncomfortable who are harassing officials,” said Brian Barlow, a collegiate soccer official and creator of Offside, a Facebook group whose description reads: “a referee satire page built to shame bad parents and highlight referee life isn’t easy”. 

Calling Out Argumentative Parents

On the page, Barlow calls angry parents “cheeseburgers” and doesn’t hesitate to point out their ridiculous behaviour caught on camera at all sorts of sporting events. People comment to lend their support to the game officials and to express their frustration and disbelief at the spectators’ behaviour.

Still, it’s not all bad. In a recent post, Barlow said that coach and player behaviour at a youth soccer tournament on the weekend had given him hope that things are turning around for youth sports officials.

He gave three examples, one where a coach called his young players to a halt after a player on the opposing team started failing in his defence because of a leg cramp; a second where the crowd started yelling and angrily gesturing at the referee after an offside call, and the coach admonished them, “He was offside, he was clearly offside. You guys need to sit down and shut up or leave. Don’t say another word or I’ll send you to the parking lot!” 

The third example, and perhaps the most powerful one, was of a coach who diffused a tense situation. When the parents of one team thought the ref had missed a call, they started yelling at their kids’ coach for not yelling at the ref. The coach turned around to them and calmly explained, “What do you want me to do? He’s not going to change his call.”

Then he turned to the ref and laughed it off, saying “Did I just get harassed by my own parents?”

The coach’s humour, honesty, and collaboration with the referee was an excellent model of sportsmanship for the young athletes that look up to him.

Bring Back the Spirit of Youth Sports

And it is in the spirit of encouraging good sportsmanship and modelling acceptable behaviour that the town of Deptford decided to take a stand when it comes to parents verbally abusing officials.

Little League President and CEO Stephen Keener applauded the town’s efforts, calling the idea “a creative, fun solution to shine a light on the importance of treating everyone with respect, on and off the Little League field.”

And so far, parents largely agree. Said one mother, “If parents are going to be sitting there yelling the entire game, they might as well use their energy out on the field.”

In the end, parents need to realize that sports are a game. Their children are there to learn team spirit, work ethic and discipline—and even more importantly, to have fun.

Adults’ bad behaviour at youth sports game is not only uncalled for given the situation and embarrassing for their children, but it’s also a terrible example for all of the young players.

Deptford’s new rule for argumentative parents and the attention that it’s attracting may just be what starts a movement and helps get the spirit of youth sports back on track.