We have a national crisis. Our kids are at risk of having the opportunity to play sports. Why? Because of the physical and verbal abuse that the referees and umpires are receiving. Who is doing that? Parents.

A bit of a disclaimer. I was not the perfect parent of a young athlete. I disagreed with officials, maybe sometimes loudly. I got angry. But I never ever thought of hitting one. That’s not the case today. Game officials are regularly confronted and beaten, all across the country. Leagues everywhere are abandoning youth sports because of it.

I happen to believe that youth sports participation is an essential part of growing healthy adults. Youth sports are our best vehicle to learn teamwork, to learn how to be coachable, and to understand the pure joy of movement and athletic competition.

I’m the grandfather to six kids. All six play a sport of some kind. I would hate to think that we could live in a world where that wasn’t even an option to them. Last weekend while attending the games of my grandchildren, I witnessed the genesis of a lot of this bad behavior — behavior that threatens the very existence of sports for kids. You think I’m exaggerating? Check it out. Look around the country. Leagues can’t find officials so they have to cease operations.

So here’s the scenario last weekend: I was sitting in the shade watching the end of a soccer game, waiting on the next field for my youngest grandson to play. What I saw was a young woman, obviously a mother, yelling at the referee, yelling at the players on both teams, eventually yelling at the opposing coach. Out of control.

I was sitting there calmly when I turned to my son and said “there’s my next column.” This was a game between two girls teams that were, oh, I would guess 5 and 6. I know this referee. He’s a good kid. A high school sophomore. There was nothing that he did that was unfair or inappropriate.

We then went to that youngest’s game with the same referee. No problems at all. No yelling parents. Coaches that were coaching. I have no idea who “won” that game. I couldn’t care less. My grandson was out there moving around, learning a little about the game, maybe learning a little about teamwork. Having fun.

So the next day, I went to another grandson’s flag football game. Soon enough, the parents from one team were yelling at the referees or coaching from the sidelines. As I sat down, I turned to my wife and said “I’m pretty sure I’m about to get more material for my column.”

Again, these were high school kids refereeing. Doing a great job. Talking calmly to the coaches and ignoring the parents, just like good referees everywhere. Near the end of the game, there was controversy about the score and the parents from the team that was behind were loud with their protests. These were the same parents that had been yelling the whole game.

But here’s the worst part: After the game, I heard three separate dads tell their sons “you really won the game, the referees just cheated you out of it.” Really? Like it matters? What kind of message are you sending to your kids?

Do you really think that coaching from the sidelines helps your child play better? Do you really think that winning a game at 10 is going to determine your child’s athletic career? There is no way that we know at 10 or 12 or even 14 whether a kid is going to be a sports star. And without a doubt, whether they win a youth game or not will have nothing to do with their ultimate athletic success.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe we need to keep score in our games. It gives them structure. But what if those games went away because we couldn’t find officials for those games?

Youth sports are all about movement and life skills that our children learn from participation. They don’t learn to be “winners” by winning a flag football game. They learn to be winners by learning the vast lessons that our games teach us. And from watching how their parents react to their games.

How about this? Volunteer. Be a coach. Work in the concession stand. Better yet, be a referee. Your perspective will change. I guarantee it. And maybe you will understand that it is all about the participation and not about the game.

Joe Black, PT, DPT, SCS, ATC is a physical therapist and athletic trainer at Total Rehabilitation and is Manager of Outpatient Rehabilitation for Blount Memorial Hospital. Email joeblackdpt@gmail.com to write to him.

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