Mike Lopresti: Like to be scorned? Become a youth sports referee

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Sports: Mike LoprestiAh, the innocent joys of youth sports. Or not.

At some point during a Mississippi softball game earlier this month between 12-year-old girls, a mother’s language toward the umpires became so profane, she was asked to leave. After the game, she was waiting in the parking lot.

Along came an umpire named Kristi Moore, who had worked the game as a favor because the scheduled umpire was sick. According to police, witnesses said the mother—named Kiara Thomas—stepped out and cursed at Moore, then punched her in the face. Later, Moore would post a picture on Facebook where her cheek and eye looked as if she had just gone three rounds in MMA.

Thomas was arrested, and in the mug shot, these words were on her shirt: “Mother of the Year.” Some of this stuff, you couldn’t make up.

The next time your child or grandchild has a game canceled because there are no officials or umpires—and that’s beginning to happen more and more—remember “Mother of the Year” from Mississippi.

On the phone, the IHSAA assistant commissioner is sounding the alarm about a landscape gone bananas. “We’re canceling baseball games like I’ve never seen because of shortage of officials,” Sandra Walter says. “We have baseball games and softball games being called by one umpire. Not good at all.”

She monitors the pools for high school officials, and the latest report has alarming numbers. There are 560 fewer licensed basketball officials in Indiana than there were six years ago, 377 fewer baseball umpires, 359 fewer in volleyball, 291 fewer in softball. The math is stark and simple. Older officials retire, the newer grow disenchanted and quit, or don’t take up the vocation at all. The numbers dwindle, as relentlessly as an eroding seashore.

Blake Hibler sees that, too, as president of Bullpen Tournaments, playing thousands of games this year at Westfield’s Grand Park Sports Campus. Because of the umpire shortage, fewer fields will be used, so there will be games starting at 10 p.m. and often one-man crews, neither of which he wants to do but has no choice.

Hibler is trying everything from gas cards to higher pay to spending $100,000 on a new locker room to attract umpires. Grand Park will be tinkering with technological help for umpires such as replay capability and automated strike zones—anything, everything to ease the shortage.

Bullpen Tournaments, which runs baseball games at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, is among the entities struggling to find umpires. (IBJ photo/Lesley Weidenbener)

“I think you’re looking at something with 100 different small problems,” Hibler says. “COVID has some impact. Door Dash has some impact. Uber has some impact. There’s a lot of different ways to make money as a second job.”

But the biggest factor is as plain as the bruises on that umpire’s face. You want to get attacked in a parking lot because a mother didn’t like your calls in a softball game of 12-year-olds? You want to get blindsided and slammed to the turf, like a high school football official in Texas? Or the referee in Georgia, whose blood-splattered striped shirt last week was his memento when a group of players and spectators beat and kicked him after a youth basketball game?

Those are isolated incidents to be sure, but they are also symptoms of a truly sick environment. You want to spend nights away from your family, only to endure a diatribe of angry ridicule from parents who think you’re ruining their kid’s NBA future because you called traveling? Most people don’t. Most people won’t.

“They don’t even consider getting in,” Walter says. “The conversations we [hear] at recruiting events as they walk by [are], ‘I would never do that. Those people yell at you.’ And if we get them, we can’t retain them because of the way they’re treated.”

Blame to go around

What’s going on out there? You don’t have enough fingers to point all the directions.

Blame a culture that is drenched in self-entitlement. For any disappointment or any setback, it must always be somebody else’s fault. Always. So the officials and umpires are the reason for the loss. Never mind the errors or bad shots or turnovers. Call them names. Or worse.

Blame the coaches who think that two nights a week directing 12-year-olds at the local rec center somehow makes them Mike Krzyzewski. They are the people who are supposed to set examples, but don’t. Not unless they’re setting an example of what road rage looks like with a scoreboard.

“It’s not our younger coaches that you would think need a little training. These are our veteran varsity-level coaches who are creating the ejection levels that we’re seeing,” Walter says. “And ejections are up, for fans and coaches alike.”

Blame programs such as AAU, so good at stocking the recruiting pipeline with talent, but so abysmal in some places in tolerance of awful behavior.

Blame the pros, who romanticize anger. Passion, they call it. Was it passion, as they kicked the referee in Georgia?

Bullpen Tournaments in Westfield has offered gas cards and higher pay to try to attract more umpires to its games. (IBJ photo/Lesley Weidenbener)

Blame the last parent you saw sitting in the stands of a youth game, who somehow confuses love with loudly haranguing the umpire every time the son or daughter sees a called third strike.

Walter mentions all the hoops prospective officials must jump through to get licensed. The meetings, the clinics, the tests.

“I think that’s lost on a lot of people,” she says. “The amount of time they spend off the field or court is unbelievable, so when you attach poor treatment to that type of work just to prepare, it’s easy to see an official saying it’s not worth it. Or you see the type of issue they had in Mississippi and understand why people won’t even consider it.”

Act like adults

The IHSAA is putting an officiating course in many high schools, hoping that gets students interested. There are announcements at nearly every tournament event, pleading for any interested spectators to become involved in officiating. But what must happen to ease the crisis—and it is a crisis—is for more adults to act like adults. Enforcing basic civility should not be that difficult. But it is, which is an indictment of us all.

Hibler’s reaction when he heard about the Mississippi umpire: “I instantly go, ‘How did we get there?’ We analyze every one of those situations and just ask ourselves, ‘What could we have done to prevent that if that had been us?’”

He has adult staffers keeping a close eye on the stands at Grand Park. “For the most part, we’re able to get 95% of the situations under control before there’s ever interaction between the parent and the umpire,” he says.

But everywhere, the incidents grow uglier and more frequent, and the officiating pool grows thinner. The word used to be “sportsmanship,” but Walter says national leaders of high school athletics “have almost eliminated sportsmanship from the vocabulary. It’s bad behavior we need to address. Sportsmanship is not strong enough in the conversation any longer.”

Those making the trouble are so blind, they don’t even calm down long enough to consider how their actions are endangering the future of the very activities they have come to play or coach or watch. No officials, no game. That’s not a theory, that’s becoming ironclad reality.

Walter again: “Fortunately in Indiana, we haven’t seen the physical abuse that some states have. But we have our fair share of verbal abuse toward officials. It’s nightly. I am terrified that a physical assault is the next thing we’re going to see and terrified that kids will witness that or be a part of that, that education-based athletics has come to that. That we missed every other lesson that’s supposed to be learned at our level—the way to conduct yourself, win or lose, as a child.”

And so here we are, as 12-year-old girls watch an umpire assaulted in a parking lot, and “Mother of the Year” gets arrested. As a referee has to leave a gym with blood on his shirt.

Think of those moments—and the empty courts and diamonds of canceled games—the next time you’re in row 8 screaming at the official, who soon won’t be coming back.•

__________

Lopresti is a lifelong resident of Richmond and a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mjl5853@aol.com.

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One thought on “Mike Lopresti: Like to be scorned? Become a youth sports referee

  1. Just my own experience – I’ve coached and been in the crowd for my kids for the last 7 years of sports. We have lived in the Lawrence area and then the Fishers area. While occasionally you will have some arguing with the ump or ref by the coaches and grumbling in the crowd, I’ve never heard all out cursing or screaming by fans or coaches at the officials. This year Fishers has done a great job of getting younger umps involved and have redoubled their efforts to make coaches and parents aware that they will be thrown out for the game or for the entire year (and their team will forfeit) if they harass the umps. These are all rec leagues though – I wonder if the travel leagues are dealing with a different type of parent/coach.

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