Lory Rawlinson had just finished umpiring a Dixie Youth Baseball game in Florence when an unknown man grabbed him by the shirt and threw him up against a chain-link fence.
“Don’t you ever throw my son out of a game again!” the man yelled at the 18-year-old umpire, who threw his hands up in the air as others rushed to his aid.
“I was stunned,” said Rawlinson, now 25. “It did kind of mess me up for a while.”
Situations like that — or close to it — play out regularly, and it’s happening more frequently. The rise in parents and spectators who harass, threaten and even physically assault game officials is jeopardizing youth sports in South Carolina.
Games are being delayed, postponed or understaffed due to a lack of officials, who say the abuse isn’t worth the $12 to $45 pay check, depending on the sport and location.
“(Umpires) go into it wanting to help the kids, wanting to be a positive influence,” said Jeff Nettles, the state umpire in chief who has also considered hanging up his mitt because of sideline abuse.
“But they don’t realize mommy and daddy think their kid is the next Nolan Ryan … and they can get pretty abusive,” he added, referring to the former Major League baseball pitcher. “ If the parents can’t be an example, then we’ve got a serious problem in our society.”
The SC referee shortage is most striking in youth soccer, baseball and basketball, where spectators sit within feet of the action and hold officials, who are often young and inexperienced, to professional standards.
• About 70 percent of new soccer referees do not return after their first year, said Kenneth Ayers, state referee administrator for the SC Referee Association. The forecast for this season is looking a little better with almost half of new referees returning after last year’s Silent September initiative, which raised awareness of sideline heckling by banning cheers and jeers anytime the ball was in play for one month.
• Baseball is faring slightly better. SC Dixie Youth Baseball loses about 40 percent of its umpires every year. Parents all over the state must step up to umpire their child’s game to prevent game cancellations on a weekly basis, Nettles said.
• Basketball is struggling too. About 20 percent of officials do not return the following year, said Jake Rosiek, vice president of SC Basketball Officials Association. Responsible for staffing games in Georgetown, Horry and Williamsburg counties, Rosiek said he may have to ask schools to move games to other nights if more referees don’t step up.
While the problem is most noticeable in youth sports, the SC High School League, which oversees the state’s high school sporting events, is also stretched thin, said assistant commissioner Charlie Wentzky. The number of referees for all high school sports is decreasing while SC schools are increasing their sports program offerings.
Rougly one out of every 100 games is canceled or postponed due to the shortage, Wentzky said, and there could be thousands of high school sporting events scheduled during any given week.
As player participation continues to rise each year in South Carolina for youth sports, referee organizations are warning that even more game postponements and cancellations are to come.
At least one assault per week, many more unreported
Michael Shealy and his son were refereeing a youth soccer tournament in Aiken several years ago when his son, now 21, called a player offside and penalized the team.
“This parent proceeded to tell my son that he’d take him out to the parking lot and beat him up,” said Shealy, whose son did not want to talk about the incident.
Violence was only threatened in Shealy’s case, but at least one physical assault on a game official is reported somewhere in the country every week — and many more go unreported, said Barry Mano, president and founder of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO).
What was once an incredibly rare occurrence is becoming commonplace, he added.
No one tracks assaults on SC referees, but at least one organization, the SC Youth Soccer Association, encourages its referees to file confidential reports when they feel they’ve been mistreated.
In November, a parent shoved a referee in the parking lot after he was ejected from a Charleston area soccer game for verbal abuse, according to reports shared in part with SC McClatchy papers.
A month before that, another parent in the Charleston area threw a soccer ball that had gone out of bounds at a teenage referee, hitting him in the back of the head. As the referee tried to sort out who did it, other parents on the field harassed and chided him, reports show.
“I’ve had parents say, ‘Well if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen,’” said Hans Pauling, executive director of the soccer association. “You’re saying that to a 13-year-old (referee) ... It sickens me that parents act so unruly sometimes because it’s just not appropriate at all. If it were their child out there, they would not want someone to yell and scream at their kid.”
The public rarely hears about this environment. Victims are reluctant to come forward, leagues are swift to handle issues internally and associations are eager to downplay incidents for fear of discouraging future referee participation, Mano said.
According to a recent nationwide survey by NASO, nearly half of all officials have feared for their safety while officiating.
Charles Robertson, 59, of Columbia can relate.
“I felt like we were in danger. Absolutely in danger from the craziness,” Robertson said of an incident during a recreational youth soccer tournament in Lexington about five years ago.
A coach from Greenville selected a handful of players on club teams and declared them as recreational, he said. That would be like college athletes taking on a high school soccer team, and the scores reflected that.
The team was racking up 10 and 20-to-nothing wins, he said. By the time it got to the finals, parents were livid. They started to walk right onto the field during play, “screaming their heads off.”
“The parents were eventually able to calm themselves down,” said Robertson, who was ready to call the police. “But it was a scary situation for me because my back is turned toward the parents and I didn’t know who was going to come charging through.”
Why is abusive behavior on the rise?
The increase partially has to do with the popularity of replay in professional sports, Mano said, which has created a culture of second-guessing officials — even at the youth level. Mano said he once had a parent submit video of a referee purportedly missing a call during a youth game.
“It’s a mindset that’s not healthy,” Mano said. “The expectations need to be reigned in.”
On top of that, yelling at referees actually increases the likelihood of mistakes or bad calls, said Eva Monsma, a University of South Carolina professor who specializes in sport psychology. And that only perpetuates the problem.
Like all human beings, Monsma said, referees have a limited attentional capacity, or the amount of information they can attend to at any one time.
“A typical human response to pressure situations is that our attentional capacity narrows,” she said. “Imagine having a full range of the field and you can scan left to right with some peripheral vision available to you. When you’re under pressure, it’s like looking through a toilet paper roll.”
And that may explain some mistakes that are obvious to parents, who then feel the need to react, Monsma said.
Another factor to consider is that parents are investing more time and money in youth sports than ever before, said Andy Driska, with Michigan State University’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.
“Youth sports have really just become an avenue for prestige and reputation within a community, and when your child is good at something, that’s a reflection on you as a parent,” Driska said.
“People are investing more, they’re putting in more of their time, and it just matters more. So I think when something goes wrong, it’s easy for tensions to flare up into something as ridiculous as hitting a referee,” he added.
Ariana Suarez, a soccer mom in Columbia, knows first hand about the investment of time and money.
Suarez’s 11-year-old son plays on Technical Soccer Club, a traveling team based in Columbia, and is on the road at least two weekends of every month in season, she said. With travel, hotel, meals and equipment, it can cost the Suarezes about $2,500 every season.
“You get wrapped up in it,” she said.
After all of that, it can be frustrating to get stuck with a young or inexperienced referee, who may not know all the laws of the game, she said. Suarez once paid $625 for her son to participate in a tournament, only to find the teenage referee on his cell phone throughout the game.
And then there is the aspect of safety. She feels referees get more protection than children on the field.
“When a player is choke-holding another and throwing them off the field, that’s dangerous. That’s not soccer anymore,” Suarez said. “There’s a lot of dangerous plays that happen, and the problem is, you have a lot of refs not calling this stuff.”
Colleen Rooney’s son is on the same team. She recognized that verbal abuse on referees is a problem.
“There is a lot of passion,” Rooney said. “When a referee makes a difference in the results, that’s when it gets to me,” she added.
Her husband, Phil, said he would like to see referees on the sideline beforehand talking to parents about their expectations on the field and how they plan to call the game.
“Run the rules, not the game,” Phil Rooney said. “When people start believing you’re running the game, that’s when it starts to get out of hand.”
Referees aren’t secretly rooting for either side; they just make honest mistakes, said Horst Diachendt, a soccer referee in Lexington since 2007.
“It’s not like I wake up first thing in the morning and think, ‘Which team am I going to screw today?’” he said. “Injustices will happen, but people need to learn that it is what it is, and you have to live with it. … Yes, I make mistakes, but I’m constantly learning from my mistakes so I don’t make them again.”
Training is limited, mentorship is scarce
Many officials say the problem lies with a lack of training and mentorship for referees.
To become a certified youth soccer referee, for example, an applicant must only take an online training session, attend an eight-hour class and pass an exam.
“So when parents see a 12-year-old, or a 14-year-old, or a 50-year-old (referee) on their field, that person might have zero experience,” said Bob Correia, a soccer referee trainer in Mount Pleasant.
Training isn’t even required in some levels of Dixie Youth Baseball. And no one is available for mentorship because it’s “all hands on deck.”
“It’s not uncommon for certain parts of the state to have 150 to 200 games (per weekend),” said Ayers, the state soccer referee administrator. “You need every referee you have available in the area, and that takes away your ability to mentor.”
By comparison, there could be anywhere between 500 and 700 youth baseball games any given week during the season, said Nettles, the state umpire in chief.
Recruiting youth soccer referees isn’t the problem. The pool of officials grows every year, especially kids 19 and under, according to data collected by the Soccer Association.
But very few stick around.
“(Teenagers) come out once, get yelled at by parents and coaches, and don’t want to do it ever again. It’s not fun,” said Brian Marshal, 45, who has been a youth soccer referee for the past four years.
On the other hand, Dixie Youth Baseball’s umpires are retiring and no one is replacing them, state director McColloch said. The 19-and-under crowd just isn’t signing up to umpire, he said.
And some of those retirees got fed up with the constant diatribes and name-calling.
“They say you’ve got to have thick skin. Over the years mine got thinner and thinner, and I just got tired of listening to it. So I quit four years ago,” said Keith Wilks, a former Lexington umpire with 17 years’ experience.
Where do we go from here?
The state’s youth sports associations are taking steps to change the culture.
It started last year with soccer’s Silent September, which barred sideline cheers and jeers to raise awareness about inappropriate sideline behavior, said Burns Davison, head of rules and compliance with the SC Youth Soccer Association.
The association is now working to build referee mentoring programs. It has also teamed up with SoccerParenting.com to help create a calmer sideline. The website features videos, online courses and articles to help parents distinguish between supportive, distracting and hostile sideline behavior.
Meanwhile, Dixie Youth Baseball has put the onus on coaches. Administrators implemented a code of ethics last year that requires coaches to patrol unruly parents, with potential consequences if unsuccessful, said Paul McColloch, the state director of Dixie Youth Baseball. The new season is scheduled to begin later this month.
And the SC Basketball Officials Association (SCBOA) is working to get the message out that it needs refs. During the high school state basketball championships earlier this month, the SCBOA ran 42 commercials to bring awareness to the severe need for hoops officials next season.
Some referees are working on their own to keep the peace.
Augosto Caldwell, a 53-year-old referee with about 15 years’ experience, takes every opportunity to explain calls to parents on the sideline.
During a youth soccer game last month in Columbia, a player scored a goal that didn’t count. He was offside before the ball was kicked, Caldwell explained to parents unprompted.
By the end of the game, parents were laughing and joking with Caldwell.
“It helps,” Caldwell said of communication. “You have to have a good temperament.”
Cody Dulaney: 803-771-8313, @dulaneycd
Lou Bezjak and Joe L. Hughes II contributed to this report.
How much do referees get paid?
South Carolina Youth Soccer Association
Ages 8 to 10: $24 per game for the center referee, no pay for the assistants.
Ages 11 to 12: $22 per game for the center referee, $14 for the assistants.
Ages 8 to 10: $20 per game for the center referee, no pay for the assistants.
Ages 11 to 12: $22 per game for the center referee, $12 for the assistants.
South Carolina Dixie Youth Baseball
Pay varies greatly depending on the location, but umpires make anywhere from $20 to $45 per game.