May 16, 2017 - Things to Do

Charlotte sports parents can get out of control

A youth lacrosse game at Elon Park came to a screeching halt a few weekends ago when a coach stormed the field to call the referee an “asshole.”

The issue was relatively minor: The coach was upset because he didn’t feel referee Brian Hadley had given him enough time to substitute a player. Hadley ejected the coach. An assistant coach then rushed the field to call Hadley a “douche bag.” He got tossed as well.

Neither coach would leave the field. Hadley had enough.

All of the children playing were under 13 years old.

“I’ve never walked off the field before, but I simply couldn’t be a part of it,” said Brian Hadley, a referee who officiates lacrosse, football and wrestling. “The way these coaches talk to the kids, the way they talk to the officials … it’s gotten so bad.”

There have always been a few sports parents who cause problems with referees. But the atmosphere is only getting worse, referees say, as youth sports take on what seem to be increasingly higher stakes.

The Agenda spoke to a number of Charlotte-area referees and officials who described troubling scenarios like this one repeated weekend after weekend.

While it’s not a problem unique to Charlotte, the city does tend to be home to the region’s larger amateur athletic events. And the issues start shockingly early — when children are as young as 9 or 10.

In one recent instance, a group of referees was accosted by an enraged father after a Pop Warner football game at Revolution Park as they walked toward their cars. One of the refs was knocked to the ground.

The atmosphere is getting so toxic that fewer referees are looking to get into the business. Fewer still are investing the time and energy to hone their craft — exacerbating the problem.

Why are youth sports an issue?

At higher levels of the sporting world, fans are more removed from the action, said Rob Thomas, the owner of SOS Officials and a referee himself. An unruly person might be rows and rows removed from the action.

But at the youth level, there might only be 50 people in attendance and pressed right up against the field of play.

But the culture of youth sports has changed, too. Instead of playing multiple sports, more children are specializing. Families are spending thousands of dollars on travel teams, coaching, clinics and tournaments.

Steven Huffman, who has officiated sports for 40 years, sat the atmosphere has gotten progressively worse. Parents these days believe their children have a chance at scholarships or a professional career, and any setback on the field, no matter how minor, is a threat to those chances.

“When I first started, youth sports was recreation,” he said. “Now, as the parents view it, if you call something against their kid, you are taking away their scholarship and their future.”

The main cause is a lack of training — for refs, coaches and parents.

Though college and pro teams are the dream, at the youth level it’s generally a dad at the helm of the team and a phalanx of dads in the stands. That raises the emotional stakes and can create misunderstandings.

“They’re dads. They don’t know the intricacies of the game,” Thomas said. “When you try to implement a rule, they don’t understand, and there’s where a lot of the mess starts.”

The coaches feed off that and feel like they’re expected to be working the refs.

“The coaches think that them arguing with you is their badge of courage that they are now on par with Coach K and Roy Williams and everybody else,” Huffman said. “What they don’t understand is when you deal with coaches from high school on up, they actually ask you pertinent questions. If you explain things in basketball terms, it’s over.

In youth sports, it’s like, ‘I’ve got to get the last word in.’ That gets them thrown out.”

But the blame can’t solely be placed on the parents and coaches. Even if they are trying their best, there are simply a fair number of unskilled referees. At $18 a game, officiating can be a tempting side hustle.

“Let’s be honest, they’re out there for the money,” Thomas said. “This is a craft. You can’t just put a shirt on and do it, like a lot of people think.”

Fewer are willing to take that risk, though.

“There are not a lot of new officials coming into the industry because the mantra is that it’s not safe,” Thomas said. “People don’t want to deal with all the drama that’s out there. They don’t want to hear the name calling. It’s not something they want to deal with.”

What should be done?

One avenue, several refs said, is to make sure that officials are well-trained. There’s a subtlety to the art of officiating that can head off problems well before they occur. You can vary the intensity of your whistle blasts. You can speak to players before there’s conflict. A seasoned referee knows all of these tricks, said Kevin Broadley, a Charlotte soccer referee.

To become a soccer ref in Charlotte, you used to have to take a two-day in-person seminar where veterans would at least begin to broach these subjects. Now, all you have to do is take an online course and exam. Then you can order a uniform and step out on the field.

Broadley is hoping his recently created Charlotte Referee Organization will plug the gap that was created. The fledgling business pairs new referees with long-time pros to work together on the field and discuss the finer points of officiating.

Photo by Charlotte Referee Organization via Facebook

But, of course, that won’t solve everything. Even the best referees will run into problems.

Hadley, the referee who walked off the field at Elon Park, said he’d like some tougher enforcement for rec league games. At the high school level, there are usually officers of deputies ready to remove coaches who have been ejected. There’s a formal process through the N.C. High School Athletics Association to handle those situations.

Rec sports don’t have that. But since many of those games take place at county-owned parks or public schools, Hadley would like the county board commissioners to pass rules stating that people ejected from games for bad behavior are banned from the park for a period of time.

“If they do awful things, they have to suffer the consequences for it,” he said.

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