Protect sport: Blow the whistle on abuse and misconduct

Safer, more respectful settings benefit everyone, officials included

Referees and officials see sport in a way that most cannot. They know where to look, and what to look for. They see the game within the game, the big picture and the tiny details, the forest and the trees.

It’s a unique ability, to be sure, and it doesn’t come easily. Officials take the training, pass the tests, and stay up to date on their sport and its rule changes. Good thing referees tend to be avid learners.

And it’s also a good thing they do this for the love of the game—their game. A 2020 National Association of Sports Officials survey tells the tale: over 43 percent of respondents said they got into refereeing “for the love of the game,” by far the biggest reason.

Officials love sports, know the value of sport as an institution, and want to give back to protect the games they cherish.

Says college basketball referee Michael Book, “The environment, the camaraderie that I call the brotherhood and the sisterhood of officiating—it’s like none other.”

Changing the Culture

Improving the climate of sport is in everyone’s best interest, including officials.

Across the country, administrators from youth leagues to high school sports are struggling to find enough referees to work games. According to an August 2022 Denver Post article, some 50,000 officials have left the high school ranks since 2018-19. Poor fan and coach behavior toward referees was among the main reasons for the shortage.

“We’re in a referee crisis and trying to climb out of that,” says Book, also the assistant commissioner overseeing officials with the Colorado High School Activities Association. “Any time you try to get somebody involved in officiating, it’s ‘no thanks, I don’t want to get yelled at.’ And that has driven the newcomers from becoming referees but also the current ones are just fed up and done.”

Poor behavior at games sends the message to young athletes that it’s OK to mistreat officials—and others. Clearly, prioritizing positive, respectful sport environments is imperative for the long-term health of the games we play.

Efforts like the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s Emotional & Physical Abuse and Misconduct Toolkit or NFHS’s Bench Bad Behavior campaign provide leagues, administrators, coaches, parents, and officials with concrete resources to make grassroots change.

Taking It Further

Changing the culture in sport is also about protecting athletes of all ages from abuse and misconduct, including sexual abuse, harassment, hazing and more. It threatens to undermine the myriad benefits that sport brings to so many.

Officials can play a valuable role in this space. They already have the skills, the work ethic, and the motivation to protect sport.

Mark Doherty, of Orlando, Fla., has a PhD and is associate dean of clinical sciences at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has officiated multiple sports most of his adult life and has also coached collegiate soccer. Doherty believes referees and other adults in sport have an obligation to look for and call out harmful behavior when they see it.

“With most officials, there’s a heightened awareness of what’s happening (around you) when you’re getting to the field,” he says. “We’re trained to look for things and to be observant. That’s what we’re there to do. And this is just another part of that capacity, to keep our eyes and ears open.”

Putting this obligation into practice can take some additional knowledge and skill development.

Get Trained. End Abuse in Sport.

Everyone involved in sport is entitled to reap its rewards in a safe, supportive environment. The U.S. Center for SafeSport offers training and tools that can equip officials with the skills needed to be part of the solution.

An independent nonprofit authorized by Congress in 2017, the Center is responsible for preventing and responding to emotional, physical, and sexual misconduct and abuse in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Movement. The Center also serves as an educational resource for sports organizations at all levels across the country.

The Center’s online abuse prevention training courses lay out principles and strategies to promote safer, respectful sport environments. The SafeSport® Trained Core course includes realistic scenarios, allowing referees to apply course learnings to real event environments.

The Center offers other resources relevant to officials, including a referee-focused one-page tip sheet that provides practical information on how to recognize different forms of harmful behavior, what they can look like in a sports setting, and what to do if they occur.

“The (SafeSport training) is just another professional obligation that we have,” says Doherty. “This is part of the profession. I have to try to keep the players safe. This is just one other aspect to keep it safe, keep it fair, keep it fun.”

Bystander intervention Process Steps

What to ask yourself at an event

  1. Notice a concerning or harmful event is happening or may happen. Is there anything about this situation that concerns me?
  2. Decide whether action is needed in the situation. Does something need to be done?
  3. Assume responsibility for acting or delegating. Is it my responsibility to do something? If I don’t, who will?
  4. Figure out your options for intervening and identify risks and barriers to act. What actions can I take safely? What might make it hard to do something? What power do I have in this situation?
  5. Understand how to carry out the action safely. How will I keep myself safe while taking this action? What might help the person being harmed feel safer in this situation?

Ways to respond: Consider the ‘Five D’s’

  1. Be direct — Say something in the moment, such as telling someone to stop their harmful behavior or that their inappropriate joke is not funny, or asking someone being harmed if they want to leave.
  2. Distract — Create a diversion, like asking what time it is, changing the subject, or asking one of them to help you with a task.
  3. Delegate — Get someone else to address the concern, such as a supervisor, a friend of the individual acting inappropriately, or relevant authorities (like a building manager or security guard) if warranted.
  4. Delay — Buy time until it is safer to intervene or wait until you can have a private conversation with the individual acting inappropriately about your concerns.
  5. Document — Record the date, time, location, information about people involved, and a summary of what happened; give the information to someone with more power to act.