Why Do Men Quit Umpiring Little League Games? Nasty Parents.

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jason Gay headlined “Why Did the Umpire Quit Little League?” Nasty Parents.”:

Enough, Don Bozzuffi thought. Two respected umpires had quit his local Little League program in Deptford Township, N.J., citing verbal abuse from parents and spectators. Bozzuffi, the league president with 40 years as a youth baseball volunteer, blasted out a Facebook missive:

Effective immediately, in the event of unruly or abusive behavior by a spectator or game attendee that is deemed necessary to impose the Code of Conduct, that offender will be barred from further attendance at Deptford Township Little League until he/she agrees to, and completes, three umpiring assignments at our complex.

Shorter version: Act like a jerk to one of our Little League umpires, and you’re going to have to become a Little League umpire.

For three games.

Then we’ll let you back to watch.

Since the policy was announced in April, Deptford Township hasn’t witnessed any new meltdowns. If anything, Bozzuffi’s idea has struck a nerve.

“This is our chance to make a difference,” he told me. “People are tired of it.”

He’s right—what pushed Deptford Township to the edge is hardly unusual. Around the country, youth and school programs continue to lose umpires, referees and officials at worrisome rates.

The pandemic was a factor—with sports shut down or limited, some former officials found new work. But the No. 1 reason for leaving remains the same:

Ugly, antisocial behavior by spectators—by parents in particular.

“The attrition rate is incredible,” said Barry Mano, the founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials, an organization based in Racine, Wis. “People say, ‘I want to give this a try. I like sports, I can make some money.’ Then they come into the whirlwind, which is largely made up of bad behavior, certainly at the youth level, by parents-slash-fans. Then they say, ‘What the hell? Why am I gonna hang around and do this?’ And they leave. The shortage is driven directly by how they’re treated.”

To be clear: We’re not talking about a brief, spirited boo from the bleachers, or a smart-alecky request for the ref to pay a visit to the eye doctor. Today’s climate is more menacing. Across youth sports, it isn’t hard to find examples of parents, spectators, coaches and other adults confronting and threatening officials during and after games.

“Every week we get a report of some type of physical assault against a sports official,” said Mano. “It’s mind-boggling.”

I’ll say it for you: This is a societal embarrassment, another pathetic symptom of our national tantrum culture. Nearly everyone who plays youth sports has a memory of parents gone wild, but the current situation is a disaster. Mano said that an NASO survey found that of every 100 officials who sign on to officiate, only 30 are left by the third year.

A variety of factors are at play. One is the increased intensity in youth sports, brought on by the influx of pay-for-play travel and club teams. Such programs can wreak havoc on more casual, inclusive recreational sports programs—lower-stress leagues where it’s still OK to forget your cleats and daydream in right field—and instead supercharge contests featuring children still finger-painting in elementary school.

Parents who pay more may expect more—and see youth sports as a portal to potential scholarship opportunities. It has ratcheted up the stakes and, by extension, put unacceptable pressure on officials. Travel sports may increase an official’s financial opportunities, Mano said—weekends are flooded with tournaments, and it’s possible to officiate a single sport year-round. But the trade off can be a toxic environment.

“Because of the money being invested, the time being invested, those parents-slash-fans rush to bad behavior more than they might in a community setting,” Mano said.

Then there are the replay know-it-alls. Today’s televised pro and college games are rich with slow-motion breakdowns and video challenges, a development that has brought new clarity to close calls, but also put diminished fan patience with the “human element” of officiating. We must get it right on TV—why not Little League?

Mano said he was recently approached by a company promising technology to bring replay down into school sports. Parents are already there—they’re using their phones to capture their own replays, sometimes posting controversial calls on social media as an effort to shame the referee.

“People send us video from a play in a softball game with 8-year-olds,” Mano said. “It’s insane.”

“Think about it,” he said. “You go out and work a game for 40 bucks, and then you get totally trashed on social media. Everyone’s running around with a video that purportedly shows an official made a mistake. It’s B.S. Why would you put up with it?”

This is the heightened environment Don Bozzuffi was trying to navigate in Deptford Township. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘You wouldn’t believe that call, [the umpire] stinks, I got it right here on my phone, look!” he said. “I say, ‘I don’t want to see it.’ ”

Bozzuffi said that “99%” of sports parents in his community are “wonderful,” and have the right priorities about Little League. He says his bad fans-must-umpire idea is meant to be an “aggressive deterrent” which he hopes to never have to initiate.

Everyone is looking for answers. My son’s fourth/fifth grade basketball league has a “seat belt” rule for when coaches get out of line—they have to sit on the bench and stay there. Mano talked about “Silent Saturdays,” in which adult noise is prohibited, children play, and quiet civility reigns.

Sounds great. We could use Silent Saturdays in a lot of places.

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