PITTSFIELD — Youth football referees in Berkshire County say they're concerned for their safety during games, and it's not because of the kids.
The Berkshire County Football Officials Association decided earlier this month it would no longer officiate games without police presence, citing at least three incidents this season of parents storming the field during games to challenge referees. One of these incidents resulted in "a physical altercation," league leaders wrote in a public notice posted to the association website.
Officials say the recent rise in parental aggression isn't the first time the association has tackled the problem. The phenomenon began about five years ago, Jeff Meehan said on behalf of the association, and the association worked with the league to implement a zero-tolerance policy that he said cleaned things up for a few years.
This year, he said, the relationship with parents took a turn for the worse.
"When our guys are out there and not being comfortable, something's gotta be done," Meehan said.
Police officers already keep watch over high school games, Meehan said, and the association's recent decision would extend that policy to all youth games.
Gary Bianchi, commissioner for the Berkshire County Youth Football League, said things have improved in the three weeks since he posted notice of the decision. That said, he said he'll soon convene additional meetings with football officials to discuss what next year's season will look like.
Bianchi said he hopes officials will reconsider requiring police presence — "my knee-jerk reaction was it was overkill" — but also the incidents with parents were "uncalled for."
"It's youth sports. Nobody should be getting that upset at a youth sports game," he said. "It doesn't show good sportsmanship to your kids."
If the association stands by its decision, the league's delegations around the county would incur the costs of hiring police officers to staff the games.
As for the incidents that prompted the discussion, Bianchi said he wasn't sure about the details. Meehan declined to be specific about where the incidents took place and what exactly happened but noted it's a countywide issue.
In one incident, Meehan said, a parent got angry that his child was injured and came out to yell at one of the officials. In another, a parent felt the official should have thrown a penalty flag "and took it too far."
"We don't want to say too much," he said. "We feel best when we can walk off the field, and no one knows we were even there. We don't want to draw much attention this."
Bianchi said the percentage of people behaving badly is small, but "that stuff can't happen."
"We're in a different time period than we were 25 to 30 years ago," he said.
Bianchi said a meeting earlier this month between the league delegation and the association seemed to help, and the season ended Saturday on a positive note with championship wins for the Pittsfield Bulldogs' junior team and Dalton Youth Football's senior team. He said there was a controversial call during the Saturday Super Bowl "that parents handled very well."
"I do not want a few incidents to put a black [mark] on what the past and the future holds," he said.
Meehan said he hopes families can understand referees aren't perfect, and "we're just normal people that enjoy football and try to do the best we can." He said the group is struggling to retain membership amid aging demographics.
"We know that we're not perfect, and we don't get every call right," he said. "But we do our best, and try to get `em all right."
Amanda Drane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.