For the past three summers, ever since he was 11, our son has worked as a baseball umpire. As a job, it’s a step up from his early lemonade stands and Pokémon card trading. It comes with a uniform, a mini-broom to sweep home plate and a lot of responsibility.
He has taken umpiring courses and he gears up like a SWAT officer before every game so he’s protected from wild pitches and foul balls. For an hour or two, he leans over the catcher’s shoulder and passes judgement in a very public manner: “Ball! Strike! Out! Safe!”
On the diamond, his word is the law. Or at least it should be.
Alas, we live in world where umpires of every sort are held in low regard. Go to a sporting event and you’re more likely to hear fans shout, “Ref, you suck!” than “Huzzah, what a well-considered call, dear sir!” Sadly, that antagonistic attitude has seeped down to the littlest of little leagues.
Our son has been lucky. His umping has been a rewarding experience filled with the occasional tough call but not much controversy. That’s not the case for every junior judge. There’s a YouTube sub-genre of “Sports Parents Behaving Badly.” It features shaky iPhone footage of grown men (and women) losing their minds and their dignity, shouting and swearing and even brawling over decisions that didn’t go their team’s way. It’s hard to know if these viral classics should be filed under comedy or tragedy.
Verbal abuse—and worse—of umps and refs has become so common that many youth leagues have mandated signed codes of conducts, online re-education courses and orange-vested “field marshals” to pre-emptively tone down parents’ behaviour.
Almost every diamond, rink and pitch posts sideline reminders to potential boo-birds that, hey, this is a kids’ game, with young referees, so let’s all just chill and enjoy ourselves and not freak out about how losing this match might affect our 10-year-old’s draft prospects.
American author Michael Lewis, who writes about sports and finance, recently launched an excellent podcast, called “Against the Rules,” that explores just this issue: the troubling decline in respect for referees in almost every sector of our society. Authority figures tasked with impartial judgement and neutral oversight are being undermined from all sides.
Lewis was inspired to do his podcast in part from living under a U.S. President who bullies anyone who tries to enforce the rules against him, as well as from the personal experience of witnessing a young umpire nearly brought to tears by a parent-coach at a girls’ softball match. The assault on the integrity of referees might begin on our playing fields, but if left unchecked it can lead all the way to the White House.
It’s a reminder that one of the toughest, most important roles we inherit as parents is umpiring. Often we must put away our flashy home jersey as Fun Dad and instead pull out the whistle and send one of our kids (or even the whole team) to the penalty box.
Explaining clearly and calmly the broken rule and resulting punishment teaches our kids the value of fair and consistent judges in their lives. Then they begin to take responsibility for their own mistakes rather than blaming it on the ump.
Throwing a tantrum or shouting at referees (on TV or, worse, at a live event) because we believe they’re biased against us (or the team we root for) sends the exact opposite message. Especially when we’re a red-faced adult berating a kid in blue for potentially blowing a call.
As parents, we can all learn something from the grace under pressure demonstrated by youth umpires: Stay cool. Know the rules. Tune out the fools. It’s only a game after all. But how we play—on and off the field—will determine whether we all feel safe at home.
David Leach is a professor in UVic’s Department of Writing and the head coach of the Carnarvon Red Pandas.