Our Opinion: Abusive fans pose threat to youth sports

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Verbally abusive spectators are a nuisance to those who just want to watch their kids compete in youth sporting events, but they are a genuine threat to youth sports if they discourage people from officiating. Wisconsin lawmakers propose to do something about it and Massachusetts should keep an eye on their effort.

Last week, a bill was introduced in Madison, Wisconsin making harassing sports officials a crime punishable by to a $10,000 fine and nine months in jail. A number of ugly incidents involving parents and fans verbally and at times physically attacking referees, including an incident involving former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, triggered the bill. Wisconsin athletic organizations report that it is increasingly difficult to attract young people to officiate games because of this abuse from spectators.

This kind of behavior is of course not unique to Wisconsin. It is a national problem, and those who have attended Berkshire County youth games have seen it in action. A Nov. 1, 2019 Boston Globe article headlined "There's a shortage of high school game officials in Massachusetts, and abusive fans are at fault," offered ugly examples on Eastern Massachusetts playing fields of what the National Federation of State High School Associations calls an epidemic of unruly adults, mostly parents, of creating a hostile environment that prompts referees to walk away from youth sports or never participate.

Few people are more selfless than those who serve as umpires, referees and officials for youth sports. They receive little or no financial compensation, drive long distances and give their valuable time because of a love of sports and a dedication to the youth sports that many if not all of them played. They should not have to suffer abuse from fans who blame Junior's strike-out or the defeat of Junior's team on a capable official. Mary Fitzgerald, a long-time high school soccer official, told the Globe about an incident in which a player's enraged father followed her to her car after a night game, spewing expletives along the way. Looking around for support, she saw only other adults watching silently. Ms. Fitzgerald, who told the paper she loved officiating soccer, never officiated another game. Variations of this story can be told by too many.

This kind of treatment of youth sports officials isn't entirely new, but there is no denying that there has been a decline in the quality of public discourse in recent years and a greater tolerance for public character attacks. It is no surprise that the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) acknowledged to the Globe that the official pool is shrinking and the age of officials is increasing. "This is a challenge for sure," said a spokesman for the MIAA, which oversees high school sports in the state.

With veteran officials retiring, officials like Ms. Fitzgerald quitting because they have had enough abuse, and young people choosing not to replace them, youth sports in the state and nation are facing a genuine existential crisis. Games can't run themselves. Young people risk losing an important aspect of their lives because of the behavior of boorish adults who are the worst kind of role models. Youth sports may have to be rescued from these "fans" with extreme measures, like fines and even jail time. Yes, legislating human behavior is a challenge, but Wisconsin's bold attempt is certainly justified.

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