Water Cooler 7/3/2016 – OPEN THREAD – The Decline of Youth Sports in America


I’m taking a break from my usual international stories to tell you about my week as an umpire in the largest youth preceding softball tournament in the world. Approximately 800 teams arrived in Colorado for the week-long tournament. I was one of over 100 umpires officiating the games. I worked 26 games in 6 days. This doesn’t include the 10 games for the 3-day baseball tournament the preceding weekend. Over 9 days I averaged 4 games per day. Many worked more.

I’ve been umpiring youth baseball and softball for 8 years now. I’ve also officiated football and wrestling. I have seen some incredible displays of hard work and skill by players, but unfortunately I’ve also seen too many horrible displays of behavior and lack of sportsmanship by coaches and parents.

For those of you that don’t know, I’ll tell you a little bit about youth sports officials. We buy all of our equipment. Baseball/softball can get into the thousands of dollars with equipment, special shoes, and uniforms. We pay for our own training, and do it on our own time without pay. Games in Colorado pay between $15 and $60, depending on the level. Tournament games usually pay $35-$45 per game. Including travel time, being at the site early, we probably average around $15 per hour, newer umpires make much less.

We study the rules books all the time to make sure we know them. Most umpires have to know 5-6 different rules books. That doesn’t even include the league or tournament modifications to those rules that we need to know. It’s a lot of hard work, for not very much pay.

There are days when we’re on the field for 8 to 10 hours in all sorts of weather, from snow to 100 degree heat, wind, rain, hail and lightning. We do all this because we love the game. If you do it for the money, you won’t do it for long.

The other thing people don’t know about umpires is, we really do want to get every call right, but clearly we don’t. With replay now in MLB, even their calls that are reviewed are overturned about half the time. These men are professionals that make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. That’s with four umpires on the game, where most often for youth games there are only two of us. Sometimes we have a bad angle. Sometimes crazy things happen. Often times the parents and/or just don’t really see what’s going on because their view is filtered by their team bias. Sometimes, we just get the call wrong. We’re human. Just like the coaches and players make errors, we do too.

Back to this week’s tournament, I saw some of the most appalling behavior by the adults. Coaches yelling at us, arguing routine calls, and worst of all defending malicious behavior from 11 to 14-year-old girls. Even worse that yelling at us though, they were yelling at the girls. The best example of that I heard this week was from someone I work with regularly. While we were waiting for a pitching change, he was talking with the left fielder (12u team). This is the conversation:

Umpire: How are you doing?
Player: (dejectedly) Not very well.
Umpire: Why?
Player: Because I made an error.
Umpire: Sweetie, that was not an error. That was a very good hit, and you almost got it.
Player: I know, but my coach is still yelling at me.

Baseball/softball is a hard enough game. It’s probably the most self-esteem destroying sport. Failures are much more common than successes. Coaches and especially parents should be constantly encouraging and reassuring them, not yelling at them. The game is supposed to develop teamwork, character, and discipline. In my experience if coaches spent more time teaching fundamentals of the game and less time yelling at the kids, they’d be much better. I’ve seen this first hand from coaches that do, and their teams usually overachieve.

Here’s a message posted based on of observed behavior during the tournament from the wife of an umpire:

Dads are every child’s hero. Losing it over a game and losing your cool will not better your relationship with your child. It may model behavior that you don’t want them to have… Actions speak louder than words every time. Be careful…

That official that you just reamed viciously- that person is someone else’s spouse, child, brother, sister – would you want someone doing that to your family & friends? They worked seven games straight so that everyone got their games in – no extra pay for inconvenience..

What exactly do you think you’re teaching your daughter by emotionally abusing them (yes, some of the behavior gets to this level). You’re teaching them that when their boyfriend does it when they’re 16, that it’s just normal. You’re teaching them that when a man loses his temper and goes into a rage that it’s her fault. What do you think you’re teaching your children when you are screaming at and saying all sorts of nasty things to someone in authority over the game? Do you then think they will suddenly have respect for other authority figures in their lives?

Today was my final day of umpiring youth softball. I watched grown men and women screaming at each other after a game because things didn’t go their way. It almost escalated into physical violence. The worst part? Those same ~13-year-old girls were cheering them on to fight.

I’m done. Sure, I’ll be replaced. But it won’t be with another umpire with eight years of experience, it’ll be with a first year umpire. You didn’t make the game better, you only made it worse.

Sorry this is posted so late. I’m tired, I’m burnt, and I’m spent. Happy Independence Day tomorrow. OPEN THREAD!