Mary Fitzgerald’s distinguished career as a Massachusetts high school soccer official abruptly ended after a night game last year when a player’s enraged father pursued her to her car. She vividly recalls the parent spewing expletives, falsely labeling her a lesbian, and gesturing so menacingly that she feared for her safety.
In “a fight or flight’’ moment, Fitzgerald said, she cursed back and looked around for support. All she remembers seeing were adults watching silently.
Fitzgerald said she was so distressed by the experience that she quit officiating high school soccer, a job she loved.
Now she is the face of a burgeoning national problem — an epidemic, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, which represents all 50 state interscholastic organizations. Unruly adults, mostly parents, so often create hostile environments at school sports contests that many game officials are walking away from the job, contributing to a national shortage.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve never seen it any worse,’’ said Theresia Wynns, the national federation’s director of sports and officials, who has been refereeing high school contests in Indiana since the 1970s.
Longtime game officials trace the problem to the coarsening of public discourse, and a culture that increasingly tolerates cursing in public settings and makes sport of character attacks.
“There are other reasons why officials are quitting, but there’s one consistent theme: a total breakdown of respect,’’ said Bill Stewart III, a third-generation referee who serves on the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s game officials committee.
“I hate to see sports ruined like this,’’ he said.
MIAA executives said they cannot provide specific data on the shortage of officials, but communications director Tara Bennett said by e-mail, “Anecdotal information reveals the official pool is shrinking and the age of officials increasing. This is a challenge for sure.’’
The MIAA, however, downplayed the notion that verbal abuse of officials has become a national epidemic.
“I certainly don’t think we’re in that position at all’’ in Massachusetts, said Richard Pearson, the MIAA’s associate executive director.
The MIAA has made sportsmanship a cornerstone of its mission, offering educational programs for coaches, student-athletes, and administrators.
“Those efforts among our school communities have been profound and aggressive for years,’’ Pearson said. “We believe it has placed us in a good position.’’
But Wynns said, “The crisis is not isolated to certain states. It’s national.’’
In Massachusetts, the situation is “not getting better,’’ said Stewart, who has refereed since 1972 and assigns football and hockey officials for high schools in the Boston City League and hockey officials for the Bay State League as well as the MIAA state tournament.
“No matter how many times principals and administrators send notices to parents and players, and no matter how many times the MIAA talks about sportsmanship, it’s almost immediately forgotten,’’ he said.
Worst part of the job
The MIAA said the number of high school officials across all sports in Massachusetts has averaged about 5,600 over the last three years. But the organization does not track annual data to analyze trends, and no one else compiles numbers on officials across all sports annually statewide.
By nearly all accounts, however, the ranks are thinning, leaving schools scrambling to find referees. The Eastern Massachusetts Soccer Officials Association, for example, has experienced a 10 percent drop over the last three years, and the shortage has grown so severe in some areas that schools have canceled junior varsity and freshman games.
Matt DeNapoli, who assigns soccer officials for games south of Boston, said about 15 junior varsity and freshman games have been canceled in his area alone. Many others have been rescheduled, and he has assigned only one official, rather than the normal two, to about 40 percent of the sub-varsity games because of the shortage.
There are several reasons for the shortage, including relatively low pay and an increased demand because of greater participation in several high school sports. But the overriding factor is poor spectator behavior.
“It’s getting harder and harder to recruit officials because they say, ‘Hey, it’s not worth being yelled at and berated by people when I’m just trying to do something for kids, something I love to do,’ ’’ said Bob Rodgers, athletic director at Whitman-Hanson Regional High School.
Rodgers, like many other school officials, has occasionally had to eject verbally abusive parents from athletic facilities. Last fall, he said, a player’s mother defied his warning to stop railing at an official, then balked at his order to vacate the property.
“When she saw me calling the police, she finally walked away — and had a few choice words for me, too,’’ Rodgers said.
In a survey last year by the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, 62.3 percent of athletic directors cited “dealing with aggressive and/or uncooperative parents and adult fans’’ as what they liked least about their jobs.
The response came as no surprise to school athletic administrators in Massachusetts.
Andrew Crisafulli, the new athletic director at Dartmouth High School, offered this summary, based on his seven years as athletic director at Case High School in Swansea: “Overzealous fan behavior, and the policing of such, is the most challenging and unenjoyable part of my job.’’
When parents and coaches behave badly, student-athletes often follow their leads, according to school administrators and referees. The MIAA said 33 coaches and 277 players were ejected from contests in the 2018-19 academic year, a small improvement from 2013-14, when 33 coaches and 307 student-athletes were ejected.
“The use of vulgar language by parents, students, and coaches is prominent throughout the state,’’ said Jeff Cooper, president of the Eastern Massachusetts Soccer Officials Association. “This type of behavior is not acceptable in the classroom. Why should it be acceptable on the field?’’
A survey last year by the National Association of Sports Officials found that 48 percent of male officials and 45 percent of their female counterparts in Massachusetts have feared for their safety because of the behavior of a spectator, coach, player, or school official.
Asked, “Who causes the most problems with sportsmanship?’’ Massachusetts game officials cited parents and other fans as the worst, at 49 percent, followed by coaches (35 percent), and student-athletes (14 percent).
A complaint ignored
Fitzgerald, who teaches physical education in the Newton public schools, had been selected to officiate the previous two Division 1 state high school girls’ soccer championship games before the parent accosted her after a showdown last year between two teams whose eligibility for the state tournament hung in the balance. She asked the Globe not to identify the man or his daughter’s school because she considers the problem systemic, not personal to any individual or specific to a program.
The father’s tirade began when Fitzgerald gave his daughter a cautionary yellow card for a hard blind-side tackle near the end of the game. The girl’s team lost and was eliminated from tournament contention.
Fitzgerald recalled the man pointing his finger in her face, saying, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,’’ and, “Does your wife know how bad you [expletive] us?’’
Shaken by his hostile and intimidating conduct, Fitzgerald said, she angrily challenged him to “take a swing at me’’ and told the parents who stood by silently that they were “complicit.’’
Fitzgerald wrote a report about the incident in which she expressed regret for responding aggressively. She sent the report to the school’s athletic director, and when he didn’t respond, she appealed to the district superintendent.
“There has to be some kind of acknowledgment of what happened,’’ she recalled saying. “You can’t just let this go.’’
At that, the athletic director contacted her. According to Fitzgerald, he told her he wouldn’t talk to the parent because he believed it would be a “he said/she said’’ situation, and because the season was over, and the man’s daughter, a senior, had completed high school. There was nothing he could do.
Fitzgerald appealed in writing to the MIAA but received no response. The MIAA declined to comment on the incident for this story.
Rather than feeling that she had taken a step toward fixing “a broken and toxic culture,’’ Fitzgerald said, “I felt like I was screaming into the wind.’’
High school game officials are trained to tolerate spontaneous outbursts over their decisions. But school contests are treated as extensions of the daily educational experience, and offensive behavior is prohibited. Most schools announce before games that spectators are expected to treat players, coaches, and officials respectfully.
Yet abuses abound, according to many game officials. Don Fredericks, a renowned former baseball coach at Braintree High School who serves on the MIAA’s game officials committee and assigns umpires for the state baseball tournament, raised concerns last year in the committee about “young officials being negatively affected by fan/coach treatment.’’
Fredericks said in an interview that he perceives negative behavior as an ongoing problem, not an epidemic.
“It’s really simple: People don’t know how to cheer anymore,’’ he said. “It’s almost like there should be a course in school on how to be a proper fan.’’
Finding a school official who cannot recount an abusive incident is a rarity. Jim Quinn, who officiates soccer and lacrosse, said he needed to remove a parent from a girls’ lacrosse game last year because of the man’s incessant verbal vitriol. Other times, in a scenario that is not uncommon for high school officials, Quinn has needed police to escort him to his car after games.
He said the problem has persistently worsened.
“I’m a veteran official, I’ve got thick skin,’’ Quinn said. “One of our problems is with younger officials. They get screamed at in ways that make them say, ‘This isn’t for me.’ ”
Workforce ages and thins
Steve Kulpa, a relatively new official, could have used a police escort after a freshman soccer game in September on the South Coast. In the parking lot, Kulpa experienced something similar to Fitzgerald: an angry parent who, unprovoked, threatened to punch him.
“I’ll fight you right now; let’s go,’’ Kulpa quoted the man as saying.
Kulpa’s offense, in the parent’s view, was poor officiating. Kulpa said he had trouble controlling the game, both because he was the only official working the contest and because a coach inflamed the situation by vociferously denigrating his performance and threatening to take his team off the field.
Kulpa, 62, is completing his second season as a high school soccer official. It may be his last.
“I’m kind of at a loss,’’ he said. “I’m not sure I want to do it anymore.’’
An estimated 70 percent of new officials walk away from the job within two years for various reasons, according to the National Association of Sports Officials.
DeNapoli said the national figure squares with his experience assigning soccer officials. He cited an e-mail he received last spring from a young official who said he was quitting mainly because of a “lack of respect from high school parents.’’
The shortage of young referees is especially acute. The average age of a game official in Massachusetts is 54.2.
Yet many older officials also are packing away their whistles. Quinn cited an older veteran referee who quit recently because he tired of spectators ridiculing his foot speed and telling him “he should have stayed at the rest home.’’
DeNapoli said, “Our talent pool of officials is retired people. We have 65-year-old men officiating games, getting yelled at by 15- and 16-year-olds and abusive parents, and they say, ‘Why am I putting up with this?’ ’’
DeNapoli said he is “extremely worried’’ that the referee shortage will only worsen.
State and national interscholastic organizations are trying to recruit new officials. The national federation has launched a recruiting website, and its member states have joined the social media campaign. To date, they have targeted first responders and educators.
The MIAA this week also circulated a national federation video, titled “The Parent Seat,’’ aimed at improving behavior by spectators.
But the challenges run deeper than abusive fans. Teachers, who for decades have been drawn to officiating as a second job, are working longer days in school and now are less likely to join the ranks.
The pay is not especially enticing — generally $84 for varsity games and $62 for junior varsity contests — particularly in a thriving economy.
“I have officials who are leaving to become Uber drivers,’’ said Matt Gataine, a New Bedford teacher who has assigned high school field hockey officials for 20 years.
Escalating traffic woes, especially in eastern Massachusetts, have made traveling to many assignments more difficult than ever, making the job even less appealing.
Further aggravating matters has been the threat of the deadly Eastern equine encephalitis virus. Health concerns have caused schools in some areas to reschedule night games hours earlier, which has created so many afternoon games that assigners have struggled to meet the demand.
The shortage has coincided with an 18 percent increase since 2001 in the number of students participating in high school sports in Massachusetts. The largest jumps have come in girls’ lacrosse, with 229 schools fielding teams in 2018, up from 78 in 2001, and girls’ ice hockey, with 168 teams in 2018, compared to 42 in 2001.
“Help wanted’’ signs for officials are up. So, too, are appeals for greater civility on the sidelines.
“I think everybody involved in high school athletics need to take a step back and realize how difficult these jobs are,’’ said Rodgers, the Whitman-Hanson athletic director. “Let’s face it, without officials, there are no high school sports.”