The 13-year-old soccer players in Cincinnati had been pulling at their opponents’ jerseys all game. Rhiana Garcia raised her flag again and again, signaling fouls. But a coach took issue with her officiating that October night in 2020.
The insults he directed at Rhiana, who was 14 at the time, intensified throughout the match; she said that he had accused her of being colorblind and had shouted expletives and a racial slur at her. Before the final whistle blew, the coach had been kicked off the field. And Rhiana, holding back tears, texted her boss, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”
Such unruly behavior is the driving force, referees say, behind a nationwide shortage of youth sports officials.
The shortfall has persisted for years, as rowdy parents, coaches and players have created a toxic environment that has driven referees away and hampered the recruitment of new ones, referees say. The pandemic only made things worse: The cancellation of games and entire seasons over the last two years hastened an exodus of older officials who decided that they didn’t want the low pay, angry shouting — or potential infection.
Now as youth games return, many referees are deciding that they will not.
From 2018 to 2021, an estimated 50,000 high school referees — roughly 20 percent — quit, said Dana Pappas, the director of officiating services for the National Federation of State High School Sports. New Hampshire lost a quarter of its hockey referees between 2018 and 2022, while the Public School Athletic League in New York City said it was short about 90 officials in Brooklyn.
“This is a nightmare across all sports,” Ms. Pappas said.
Across Massachusetts, hundreds of hockey games have been canceled this spring because no one was available to referee them, said Eugene Binda, who manages and assigns youth referees in the state. In Indiana, parents were asked to fill in and officiate soccer games. And in New York City, postseason basketball tournaments were suspended because of the shortage, said Angela Halasy, who manages girls basketball referees for the city’s Public School Athletic League.
John Shield, president of the Peninsula Soccer Referees Association in the San Francisco area, said that before the pandemic, the pool of youth referees in Northern California turned over by about a third every year. More recently, he said, “what happened is we had two years of referees quitting but no new referees coming in because the pandemic shut things down.”
Most people who do this work say they are not in it for the money, which can range from $35 per game for beginners to $150 for more experienced officials. Many have full-time jobs and make time to officiate games in the evening and on weekends. Addressing youth referees at a symposium over Zoom this year, Gene Steratore, who was an N.F.L. referee for 15 years, said they were “keepers of the game.”
The referees thanked him, but they repeated a common question: How do they deal with the hostility from parents and fans that has pushed so many of their colleagues away?
Rare instances of referees getting punched during games by parents, coaches or players have drawn attention to the issue. This year, referees have reported being followed to their cars, attacked by players on the field and struck by objects thrown by spectators, Ms. Pappas said. Mr. Binda, the referee assignor in Weymouth, Mass., said one of his officials was punched by a player and knocked to the ice during a hockey game in February. And just this month, a basketball referee in DeKalb County, Ga., was chased, kicked and punched by several players, WSB-TV in Atlanta reported.
“It’s driving a lot of people out of the business,” Mr. Binda said. “We are really in a dire, bad, bad situation in terms of retention.”
Officially Human, an organization that promotes the respectful treatment of referees, conducted a survey of nearly 19,000 officials in 2019. Asked what their top reason for quitting would be, 60 percent said verbal abuse from parents and fans. According to a 2017 survey of more than 17,000 referees by the National Association of Sports Officials, 39 percent said that parents caused the most problems with sportsmanship. (Coaches were second at 29 percent.)
“They feel as though they have the right to berate these young officials,” said Chris Rousseau, the supervisor of officials for the New Hampshire Amateur Hockey Association. “In some cases, I’ve watched them make these kids cry.”
The problem is that, as parents spend more time and money on children’s sports, families are “coming to these sporting events with professional-level expectations,” said Jerry Reynolds, a professor of social work at Ball State University who studies the dynamics of youth sports and parent behavior. A 2019 Harris Poll found that one in four parents reported spending about $500 a month on youth sports.
That level of expectation has had an impact on retention, Dr. Reynolds said, describing it as a vicious cycle: A new, younger referee gets yelled at for not getting every call right. That referee quits. A new referee comes in, gets yelled at and quits.
Some who haven’t quit, like Tyrek Greene of Dayton, Ohio, are being more selective about the assignments they take. Mr. Greene, 21, recalled working as the referee at a soccer game for 9-year-olds when a mother became upset that he was not calling fouls against her son. He said she got up from the bleachers, walked onto the field and screamed in his face before turning to her son and telling him, “You kick other players too, then!”
“I refuse to do little-kid games just because parents are absurd and they take the game way too extremely,” said Mr. Greene, who has been a referee for five years.
Referee organizations are looking for solutions. Soccer referees in San Francisco are considering delivering introductory speeches before games in an attempt to humanize themselves and draw empathy from spectators. The Nebraska Referee Developmental Program ran a public campaign this year with the tagline “Who are you yelling at?” to highlight referee abuse, emphasizing that 60 percent of officials are 17 or younger. Officially Human is partnering with leagues and teams to conduct classes on sports etiquette for parents and coaches.
Kamal Hossain of the East Central Soccer Officials Association in Lee County, Ala., said that he has been trying to recruit college students in his area to become referees, while persuading his current officials not to give up, that experience will boost their confidence.
“They keep wanting to leave,” he said. “And I’m trying very hard to keep them.”
In Cincinnati, Rhiana, now 16, is still refereeing this year. She said she has gotten used to the hustle of the job and is getting better about tuning out the abuse, even if she still sometimes finds herself “caught up in my own thoughts because I think that everyone is praying for my downfall.”
A friend quit refereeing after a season, she said, and her cousins also moved on. But Rhiana said she would keep at it, at least for another season or two.
Still, she warned, “there’s only so much a person can take.”