Is it any wonder there's a shortage of youth and prep sports officials?

The 47th District soccer tournament will be played this Saturday and Sunday.

Why on the weekend? One reason is because a shortage of referees has made it very tough for several area tournament games to be played on the same night.

This is not a south central Kentucky phenomenon. The fact is, youth and high school sports officials are quitting at a record rate.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 80 percent of high school sports officials quit before their third year on the job.

One of my best friends in high school, Randy Dyer, was a longtime Dayton, Ohio-area football official. He hung up the whistle several years ago, mainly because of abuse from fans and parents.

"(Officials) don't get paid enough to put up with that kind of disrespect," Dyer said.

The conversation began when video emerged of a Dayton Dunbar High School player -- with his helmet on -- head-butting a referee during a game with Cincinnati Roger Bacon High at Dayton's Welcome Stadium last month. The act was brutal and uncalled for, and the 17-year-old may be tried for assault as an adult.

The abuse -- both verbal and physical -- of sports officials is not limited to prep athletics. Last June in a Lakewood, Colorado, baseball game for 7-year-old children, a wild brawl ensued as parents disputed a call made by a 13-year-old volunteer umpire. Several people were injured and arrests were made.

And you read that correctly -- a 13-year-old was umpiring a game for 7-year-olds and was the object of scorn and ridicule.

Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials, told Fox News last month that incidents like that one are far from isolated.

"Not a week goes by that we don't field a call in our offices from one of our members, or even a non-member sometimes, having to do with assaultive behavior," said Mano.

In January 2018, a police captain in Wichita, Kansas, was charged with battery after he was shown on video pushing a 17-year-old referee at a youth girls basketball game. In 2015, a high school football coach pleaded guilty to assault after ordering his players to hit a referee.

Mano reported that a recent survey of U.S. youth sports officials found that 13 percent have been assaulted, 47 percent have feared for their safety, 57 percent have had to break up a fight between players and 64 percent have ejected a spectator over unruly behavior.

It's really no wonder that there's a nationwide crisis surrounding the lack of sports officials.

I covered local sports in Pulaski County for over 15 years and I've seen some very unruly behavior. And it's rarely kids who get nasty -- more often than not, it's the adults ... people who should know better and should be setting an example for their kids.

Even without physical assault, the verbal barrage leveled at sports officials -- on any level -- is ridiculous.

You have to remember that your kid is playing little league, middle school or high school sports. They're not professionals. These referees, particularly in the youth sports arena, are also young and inexperienced. It's horrible to see them take that kind of abuse.

But clearly the line should be drawn hard and fast at the physical abuse of an official.

In Kentucky, there is proposed legislation for the 2020 General Assembly that would increase penalties for the assault of sports officials.

Rep. Randy Bridges, R-Paducah, and Rep. Brandon Reed, R-Hodgenville, are the sponsors of the measure, which also adds the crime of intimidation of a sports official.

Under current state law, assault of a sports official is a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of 12 months in jail, if convicted. An exception is if five or more people are involved in the assault, it becomes a Class D felony, punishable by one to five years in prison.

The two lawmakers' proposal treats any instance of assault of a sports official a Class D felony, regardless of the number of people involved.

Conviction on a charge of Intimidation of a sports official would be a Class A misdemeanor. And in the social media age, that's becoming a real problem as well.

"Now your every call, your every movement is, via social media or other forms, judged by thousands, sometimes even before you get home,'' said Dwayne Finley, who has been officiating games in California for 20 years.

We have to remember that these guys do not become sports officials for the money. They get in it because they love the game and they want to give something back to the kids.

Without officials, you can't operate a youth sports league. So this shortage could eventually lead to the postponement of games, or even the cancellation of entire seasons.

At the youth and prep level, playing sports should be about having fun. It's not fun to be yelled and cursed at.

The adults need to behave better.

Here's hoping our legislators increase the penalties for violence against our sports officials. People need to be held accountable for their actions.

JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at jneal@somerset-kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jnealCJ.

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