By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA (AP) — Given the ugly bruise around Kristi Moore’s left eye, it’s not surprising that so many umps and umps are hanging up their stripes.
Why put up with incessant taunts and threats from runaway parents?
Why fret over potential violence — even the possibility of losing your life — because someone thinks you botched a call at a 12-year-old softball game?
America faces a crisis in preparatory and youth sports, with fewer and fewer people willing to take on the thankless job of refereeing.
“Veterans are resigning in droves. They’re fed up,” said Moore, who oversees the fast-pitch softball umpires for the state of Mississippi and the city of Laurel. “When we work to recruit new people, train them, put them on the field, they’re three or four games into it if someone gives them a good swear word or invites them to slap their tail. They’re like, “You know what? I go mowing the grass at the weekend.’”
Moore can certainly understand that feeling.
A few weeks ago she refereed a girls softball game. She rarely works the field anymore, but filled in at the $40-a-game gig because another umpire was ill.
On a play on second base, Moore called the runner safe. A parent watching the game thought the runner was out. According to Moore, she started yelling profanities, “accusing me of cheating on those kids.”
Moore ordered the woman to leave, which she only agreed to after the ump threatened to give up the game – but not before vowing to work things out later.
Moore gave it no further thought after suffering similar threats during her 10-year tenure as a youth referee. But as soon as the game was over, the angry mother was waiting.
“I was maybe three paces from the field and she was there,” Moore recalled. “And then she hit me.”
The woman was arrested and charged with minor assault.
In addition to the black eye, Moore said her injuries included nerve damage and a bruise in her ear. All of this will heal over time.
The emotional wounds will be more of a challenge. Moore has not been on the field since the attack. She’s not sure if she ever will.
“In the back of my mind I was like, ‘What if she had a knife in her pocket and she stabbed me? What if she went to her car and got a gun, then came back and shot me?” Moore said. “It’s just scary.”
Barry Mano was appalled by what had happened to Moore but not surprised.
As President of the National Association of Sports Officials, a group that advocates for umpires and umpires in a variety of sports at all levels, Mano hears similar stories nearly every week.
This abuse is a big reason so many states are struggling to find enough qualified officials to name the games children are playing.
“And without us,” stressed Mano, “it’s just a break.”
Reports across the country on how bad the situation has become are reported almost daily:
– At Fishers High School in suburban Indianapolis, the junior varsity baseball team has already canceled two games. “This is the second time this spring that we have canceled a high school level game on a sunny, dry day because we had no umpires available!” the school tweeted.
– A few years ago, just before the pandemic started, the state of Michigan had about 13,000 registered high school officers, Mano said. That number is 8,900 today.
– The Tennessee High School Association has urged all members to play at least one football game Thursday nights next season to alleviate the referee shortage. This allows a single crew to name games on consecutive nights.
“All we can do is ask teams if they can play Thursday night,” said Bill Marbet, a longtime high school umpire who is now an assigning officer for the Central Tennessee Football Officials Association. “If so, we can cover for you. If not, maybe we don’t have enough officials.”
The decline in Michigan, Mano said, reflects a nationwide trend that puts the 25% to 30% decline in enrolled officers since the pandemic began.
COVID-19 has undoubtedly accelerated the problem. However, it wasn’t the root cause.
Many officials resigned prior to the pandemic because of abuse from overzealous parents and fans. Then the games stopped, forcing others to consider their options. When play resumed, a significant number of these officials did not return.
Major League Baseball umpires Lance Barksdale and Ted Barrett were outraged to hear of the attack on Moore. They wanted to show their support, so they invited her through UMPS CARE Charities to the game they called Friday night in Atlanta between the World Series champion Braves and the Miami Marlins.
Barksdale, a Mississippi native, said the attack on Moore was just another example of why officials across all sports are in short supply.
“I’m definitely concerned about that,” he said. “Until people are held accountable and we no longer allow them to do what they want, we will continue to have bottlenecks. People get tired of it.”
Barrett theorized that the rise of touring teams in baseball — not to mention AAU teams in basketball and specialized camps for young soccer players — has made parents feel much more invested in their children’s athletic careers, both financially as well as emotionally.
“Parents have this sense of entitlement,” Barrett said. “They pay so much money they think they should have better referees.”
Mano’s organization is pushing for legislation that would make assaulting an officer a criminal offense. 23 states have already passed these laws, but Mississippi is not one of them.
More importantly, attitudes need to change. Coaches should make it clear that they will not tolerate such behavior from parents or that their children are not on the team. And in the stands, the other parents cannot stand by and watch when one of them insults the officials.
“We can always take the bad actors to court and pound the shit out of them,” Mano said. “But more than that, the culture is here. Parents and fans and admins and league directors need to understand that we will not allow this type of behavior.
“Even if a call is grossly wrong, that’s the point. That shows the world who we are. We can’t have a world that’s all about the right and wrong of calling.”
Though Moore has yet to decide if she will ever call another game, she has been heartened by the support she is receiving from umpires and umpires around the world.
If anything, this may be a turning point in the war on officials – a war that will ultimately make us all losers.
“I didn’t ask to be the poster child for officer abuse, but here I am,” Moore said. “My prayer is that in the future something good will come of it and we start changing the way we treat our officials in all sports.”
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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https://www.twincities.com/2022/04/23/column-amid-increasing-abuse-officials-flee-youth-sports/ Amid mounting abuses, officers flee youth sports – Twin Cities