DEPTFORD, N.J. — The April Facebook post hardly seemed like national news at the time for Deptford Little League president Don Bozzuffi. He’d lost patience when two umpires resigned in the wake of persistent spectator abuse. So he wrote an updated code of conduct.
It specified: Any spectator deemed in violation would be banned from the complex until three umpiring assignments were completed. If not, the person would be barred from any Deptford youth sports facilities for a year.
In G-rated terms (unlike the ones that will get you tossed), the mandate just wants helicopter parents to calm the heck down. No 9-year-old will remember, as an adult, being safe or out on a bang-bang play at first. But how deep would be the cut of watching dad get tossed out of the game and banished for bad behavior?
The league doesn’t want to find out. “So far, it’s working like I’d hoped and just been a deterrent,” the 68-year-old Bozzuffi said.
The problem, though, isn’t limited to Deptford and its handful of unruly parents. Outbursts of bad behavior at sporting events for young people have had frightening consequences for officials at all youth levels. Pick a town, any town, and there are adults assaulting referees or chasing umpires into parking lots looking for a fight, all available on the social feed of your choice.
The videos pop up almost weekly: inane instances of aggressive behavior toward officials. Like in January, when a Florida basketball referee was punched in the face after one game. Or last month, when an enraged youth baseball coach stormed a baseball field in Alabama and wrestled an umpire to the ground. Other adults and kids tried to break up the melee that took place in a game — at an 11-and-under tournament.
Jim McDevitt has worked as a volunteer Deptford umpire for 20 years. But he turns 66 this month and won’t call games much longer. He wonders where the next generation of officials will come from, especially when the job description includes little pay and lots of crap.
Youth officiating is in crisis. According to a 2017 survey of by the National Association of Sports Officials, nearly 17,500 referees surveyed said parents caused the most problems with sportsmanship at 39%. Coaches came in at 29% and fans at 18%.
Barry Mano founded the association four decades ago to advocate for youth officials. Mano, whose brother Mark was an NBA referee, has watched fan conduct become “far worse” than he could have imagined.
“Sports is simply life with the volume turned up,” Mano says. “We’ve become louder and brasher. We always want a second opinion on things. That’s where the culture has gone. I don’t think we’re as civil as we used to be toward each other, and it plays out in the sporting venues.”
In Deptford, things seem to be working — at least in attracting non-mandatory umps. Bozzuffi says that since his rule grabbed national headlines, three umpires have joined the league and more volunteers want to be trained.
And those who might get sentenced to umping? McDevitt puts it less delicately. “We’ll see how their sphincter feels when they have to make a tight call and the parents are all screaming and hollering at them.”
The Deptford Little League playoffs, a time when tensions rise, are under way, and Bozzuffi has urged his umps to show restraint. Bozzuffi, who has served as league president for 14 years and been connected to the league for 40, doesn’t want any fan to get ejected. He just wants to get them thinking.
For many, every “safe!” when the tag is missed, every called strike on a pitch below the knees is one more reason to blow a fuse in a youth sports culture full of hefty fees for league play and travel teams that have already heightened the financial and emotional attachment and encouraged a sense of parents as constituents who have a right to be heeded.
And it’s getting attention all the way up the youth baseball chain. Little League President Stephen D. Keener had this to say: “We applaud the volunteers at Deptford Township Little League for coming up with a creative, fun solution to shine a light on the importance of treating everyone with respect, on and off the Little League field.”
OK. But here’s the fine print.
Beyond the headlines that suggest Fuming Father No. 1 is going to get the call from the bleachers and suddenly start ringing up strike three, there’s this: It’s too much effort. The risks! The potential safety problems! The insurance!
Bozzuffi and the town’s mayor teach a three-hour safety certification class each offender must complete before receiving an umpire assignment. Rookie umps must pass a background check and complete an online concussion course. After all that, a real, qualified umpire would be stationed next to the replacement ump to ensure accuracy and fairness.
It hasn’t happened — yet.
“The first person that we have to do this to, nobody is else is going to challenge this,” Bozzuffi said. “Nobody wants to go through all this.”
So for now, at least on a recent weeknight in Deptford, parents, grandparents and friends, were on their best behavior. Parent Dawn Nacke found it unfair that the town was labeled as “obnoxious parents when we’re just caring about our kids.”
“We know that they ump for free, but sometimes bad calls are made and they cost us the game,” she said.
Has she ever been guilty of popping off too much?
“Mouthy, yes. But we all have to bite our tongues over here because of the new rule,” she said. “I just have to keep my mouth shut more. Scared me straight. I’m more angry that they call us obnoxious parents. That really upset me when I read it in the news. But this is their rule and I’m going to follow it.”
Just the way Deptford drew it up.