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A town in New Jersey is taking a novel approach to the overlapping problems of parent behavior and a shortage of referees in youth sports: Yell at the umps, and you have to join them.
Little League officials in Deptford Township have apparently had enough of unruly fans berating officials and contributing to what is a national shortage of referees and umpires. And their attempt to address the problem is rightly getting national attention. A new rule, put in place after bad fan behavior caused two referees to quit recently, requires fans who argue with the umps to umpire three games themselves before they can return to the complex.
This idea might be the best thing to come out of the Garden State since Bruce Springsteen.
“They’re coming here, they’re being abused, they don’t need that. So they’re walking away,” Don Bozzuffi, Deptford Township Little League president, told Philadelphia TV station WPVI, as reported by Good Morning America. “You’re not allowed to come onto our complex until you complete three umpire assignments. Once you do that, then we’ll let you come back.”
Deptford Township Little League has, essentially, formalized something we’ve been saying for a while. Rather than yelling at the officials, passionate parents and fans should be signing up to become officials themselves. Little League officials across Maine should consider adopting this rule.
This New Jersey town’s approach has already won the endorsement of Little League’s heaviest hitter. Little League International President and CEO Stephen Keener had good things to say to Good Morning America about the rule.
“Little League International expects its participants and fans to adhere to the highest level of sportsmanship while attending local league events,” Keener said. “We applaud the volunteers at Deptford Township Little League for coming up with a creative, fun solution to shine a light on the importance of treating everyone with respect, on and off the Little League field.”
As we’ve heard from various youth sports administrators and officials here in Maine, the referee shortage is multifaceted. It’s not just aggressive fan behavior that has made referees difficult to find or replace after retirement. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly had a big impact, and there are early signs that things are turning around and more young referees are getting involved. But the alarming and seemingly increasing habit of angry parents and other fans yelling at the refs, obviously, doesn’t help an already difficult situation.
In a perfect world, the new rule instituted in Deptford Township wouldn’t be necessary. Parents wouldn’t need this inventive disincentive to keep them from making a youth sports event all about them, and making fools of themselves in the process. But here we are.
To be absolutely clear, most youth sports fans are not contributing to this problem. The angriest and loudest voices, however, can sometimes ruin it for everyone else — in this case by souring what should be fun games between kids, and alienating much-needed umpires and referees in the process. Hopefully, this rule and the attention it has been receiving will get people to think twice before turning their kid’s baseball game into a screaming match.
“About 99 percent of spectators are wonderful, and they give positive reinforcement. It’s the one percent that don’t get it,” Bozzuffi, the Deptford Township Little League president, told the New York Post.
He said the new rule endeavors to help parents see what it’s like to be an umpire, and to “understand that this is not the easiest thing in the world.” He’s received supportive calls, texts and emails from other Little League leaders across the country, with others saying they’re going to give this rule a try as well.
The welcome reception this idea is getting shows just how fed up everyone else is by the unruly and irresponsible behavior of some fans. Hopefully, parents across the country get the message: Let the kids play, let the officials officiate, and if you think you can do a better job calling balls and strikes, then get behind the plate.