Youth sports leagues all over the country are experiencing a crisis, and because of it, many young athletes are losing the opportunity to play. It isn’t because there is a lack of players or there are no more venues to play at. It is because there is an alarming shortage of referees willing to officiate the game. And without referees, the games cannot take place.

Gary Musselman, executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association said, “The effects of a referee shortage are many — games are delayed or moved or canceled altogether, and referee crews in sports such as soccer and basketball are trimmed from three to two.”

What is causing this shortage of referees?

Some clubs and leagues say that the problem may be a number of things. With sports programs expanding, there are simply more games than there are referees. Some suggest that it may be conflicts in scheduling, disagreements in pay, and training fees.

However, of all the reasons and theories, the one that has come up the most often is poor sportsmanship and the verbal abuse that many officials experience. And in some cases, it has gone beyond verbal abuse and escalated to physical violence. There was an incident caught on video where an assistant coach ordered two of his players to collide with the referee deliberately.

And there have been reported cases of officials getting ambushed in parking lots after games.

And in two horribly unbelievable cases some years ago, officials in Utah and Michigan were killed by players who punched them.

Referees and umpires took up officiating knowing that verbal abuse would come with the territory. Parents and other spectators hurl all sorts of insults towards officials. Even coaches are known to get right up in the referee’s’ faces to the point that they get thrown out of the game.

Most referees officiate because they love the game and want to give back to the community.

Despite what some may think, referees don’t earn much, and some get paid per game. However, when verbal abuse turns violent and physical, it becomes a matter of common sense to avoid a profession that has potential dangers.

A referee may love the sport, the game, and their community, but a job that where there is no protection from the verbal and psychological abuse or the potential of physical threats hardly seems worth it.

Some might argue that they knew exactly what they were getting into when they decided on a career in officiating, whether full time or as a side job. However, many cannot deny how much the sports environment has changed in just the last decade. With multi-million dollar contracts and athletic scholarships at stake, players, coaches, and parents have become alarmingly more and more aggressive.

Referees who officiate at the youth league level don’t get away unscathed. They experience the verbal abuse just as much from parents and coaches fueled by the win-at-all-costs attitude who think that the youth league is the child’s first step to professional athlete greatness.

What can be done?

Sports organizations need to make referees feel safe again. And the only way to do that is by changing the culture of sports. There was a time when officiating a game came with pride and distinction. Today, there are less and less deciding to take up the profession and with good reason.