Mistreatment driving coaches, referees away from youth sports

Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 7:02 PM EDT
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - The fall semester is about to begin for schools throughout Eastern Carolina, and along with academics, comes sports.

Sports are an important part of childcare, as well as a way to teach students discipline and teamwork. But school athletic leaders say they’re also becoming a place where game officials are mistreated.

“When did it become acceptable to be as personal as you are with refs? When did it become acceptable for your parents to scream at other players on opposite teams?” former referee Bobby Pennington rhetorically asked.

Those are questions athletic officials are asking nationwide, including in Pitt County.

Pitt County Schools Athletic Director Rob Maloney said behavior in the stands is making it harder to find people willing to work on the sidelines.

“Referees, umpires, game day officials, there is a sharp decline, and that’s not just locally, but it’s a national trend,” Maloney said.

So where did it come from? While tough to pinpoint, Maloney said the pandemic led to many retiring. It also seemed to exacerbate the animosity at games.

“To me, it feels like people are a lot more impulsive, and they’re acting before they really think about things,” he explained.

The shortage is already forcing scheduling changes.

“For example, in high school baseball, the tradition was to play a JV Baseball game at one site and a varsity at another site, and so what we had to do was combine and play them at one night at one site so we could share the same group of officials,” Maloney said.

However, Pennington fears the impacts could extend even further.

“We are gonna wake up on one morning... and you’re gonna have to tell a four-year-old, five-year-old child that they’re not able to play soccer, volleyball, football, whatever, because there’s no one left to officiate the games,” Pennington said.

Of course, what are sports, if not a place for rivalries and competition to flourish? That’s something both Pennington and Maloney support. Still, they say it shouldn’t come at the cost of respect.

“The officials are human, and that’s one thing we have to understand in our athletic culture, they’re gonna make mistakes,” Maloney explained.

Pennington is an advocate for the fair treatment of athletic officials. He has a Facebook page called Correctable Error that has more than 600 members. The description on the page says it’s centered around the idea of returning youth sports to an “acceptable level of civility.”

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