TULSA, Okla. — In one video, a fan at a youth soccer game bellows profanities and violently kicks a ball that slams into a teenage referee standing nearby. She disagreed with a penalty called.
Another captures parents at a youth basketball game charging the court to hurl punches at the referee. And yet another shows parents berating game officials as they walk to their cars after a soccer game. The players were 8-year-olds.
The videos were posted on a Facebook page, Offside, created in frustration by an Oklahoma youth soccer referee, Brian Barlow, who offers a $100 bounty for each clip to shame the rising tide of unruly parents and spectators at youth sports events.
“I do it to hold people accountable — to identify and call out the small percentage of parents who nonetheless create a toxic environment at youth sports,” Barlow, 44, said. “It’s a very visual deterrent, and not just to the person caught on video but to others who ask themselves: Do I look like that jerk?”
In fact, many do.
A torrent of verbal, and occasionally physical, abuse toward referees nationwide has disrupted the sidelines of youth sports.
The harassment has grown so rampant that more than 70 percent of new referees in all sports quit the job within three years, according to the National Association of Sports Officials. The chief cause for the attrition, based on a survey conducted by the association, was pervasive abuse from parents and coaches.
The result has been drastic referee shortages across the country with scores of youth and high school games canceled and leagues aborted. Barry Mano, president of the officials’ association, said it received one or two calls weekly inquiring about the organization’s assault insurance or for the legal advice that goes with it.
Here in eastern Oklahoma, Barlow chose to fight back. Players, parents, coaches and administrators in the area say his online postings — he has put up only a small fraction of the hundreds of videos from around the country he has received — have altered sideline behavior.
“If one parent starts yelling at a ref, all the other parents move away and say: ‘Hey, you don’t want to be videotaped for Barlow’s Facebook page,’” said Kristin Voyles, whose 14-year-old son, Easton, is a referee and soccer player in Broken Arrow, a Tulsa suburb. “We know that everyone on the sideline has a smartphone in their hand.”
Sid Goodrich, executive director of the Oklahoma Soccer Association, agreed that Barlow’s initiative has had an effect.
“People are looking at themselves and asking, ‘Am I the reason we don’t have more referees?’” said Goodrich, who added that his association loses about 40 percent of its referees each year, forcing zealous recruitment of new officials.
Barlow’s quest to shine a light on the worst sideline behavior has made him a minor celebrity in the Tulsa area, where he lives. In the 18 months since he started the page, which also includes guidance for referees and pictures of appreciative fans, he has been the subject of three segments on local television stations.
But Barlow has also made his share of enemies among the “cheeseburgers,” as he calls the abusers, that he denounces.
“Some people, frankly, want to punch me in the mouth,” he said.
Travis Featherstone, a Tulsa coach, referee and father of young players, praised Barlow’s intentions, but wondered if the page went too far.
“There may be a different way to go about it, as in getting more parents involved with it instead of just pointing them out and making them look like they’re awful people,” Featherstone said.
And some parents have begged Barlow, who owns a marketing company, to take down certain videos, a request he has occasionally granted. (Because the videos are recorded in public settings and posted with the permission of the person taking it, he said, he has avoided legal issues.)
Just because Barlow runs the page, it does not necessarily mean parents and fans always tone it down around him, or even his 12-year-old daughter, who is a referee for games with younger children.
After a game last month, Barlow and two other referees needed an armed police escort to their cars. Last month, his daughter, Zoe, had to stay inside a building for 90 minutes after a game at the urging of tournament officials, to protect her from threats made by parents who were irate with calls made by the crew of referees. The game had to be canceled.
“Sometimes I have to intercede and tell these parents that it’s not the World Cup, and remind them that the players are 6 years old and the ref is 12,” Lori Barlow, Brian’s wife, said.
Brian Barlow, a referee for 14 years, has done more than use the Facebook page to stand up for his fellow officials. He started a program called STOP (Stop Tormenting Officials Permanently) that distributes bright signage prominently placed at youth sports complexes. One sign reads: “Warning: Screaming at Officials Not Allowed.” Another reads: “Caution: Development in Progress, Stay Out of It.”
The initiative also includes STOP vests that are worn by volunteers acting as field marshals, assigned by leagues to oversee games. The marshals also have large, red octagon STOP signs, and if parents are growing agitated with the officials, the marshals are instructed to hold up the STOP signs from the sideline.
Youth referees also hand out small badges to offending coaches that read in part: “This is a warning. A ‘youth’ referee has issued this pass. The next one will be a dismissal.”
Six Oklahoma clubs have paid a one-time fee of $999 to join the STOP initiative, and 30 leagues from states including Virginia and Washington state have made inquiries.
Barlow’s methods are not the only efforts to curb abuse across the country.
The South Carolina Youth Soccer Association last year instituted a policy called “Silent September.” Parents and visitors at games statewide were not allowed to verbally cheer, or jeer, players or referees for the entire month. Clapping was allowed.
“It was a resounding success and made for a much more focused environment for learning and for play,” Burns Davison, who heads rules and compliance for the South Carolina association, said. “We got everyone’s attention. People thanked us for the peace and quiet.”
Other states have tried a more punitive approach. Legislatures in nearly 20 states have increased the penalties for assaulting a sports official by making it a discrete, independent category of the crime, according to Alan. S. Goldberger, a lawyer from New Jersey and the author of “Sports Officiating: A Legal Guide.”
One factor that many sports officials believe contributes to parents’ bad behavior is the desire for their children to earn athletic college scholarships. Leagues in Massachusetts and Virginia have tried to address that pressure and jolt parents back to reality with signs at the entrance to athletic complexes that read: “No NCAA scouts are looking at your child today,” or “No NCAA scholarships will be awarded on this field today.”
Many families regularly spend $2,000 to $20,000 a year per child on elite club team dues, private trainers and other costs, like far-flung travel to the best tournaments and recruiting showcases. The investment of money and time leads to heightened expectations among parents, even at a contest between elementary schoolers. In fact, sports officials insist that the younger the players, the worse the sideline behavior usually is.
“When I got into officiating I looked forward to doing the youth games; I didn’t know that was where most of the trouble was,” said Mary DeLaat, a basketball referee in the Milwaukee area who began officiating in 2014 but quit this year. “The parents are all like, ‘My kid is going to get that scholarship and be the next LeBron James.’
“When something isn’t going right with that plan, the blame has to go somewhere and often it’s the referee. It’s our fault.”
It’s possible, of course, the sideline behavior springs from bad officiating, in part because the shrinking pool of referees leads to quick turnover in the ranks, which can lead to unprepared refs.
“It’s a very volatile situation,” said Donnie Eppley, who oversees officiating for several high school and youth programs in central Pennsylvania.
In Oklahoma, aside from the shaming videos, clubs have made their own efforts to keep parents in line, including assigning game proctors to document bad behavior and even having children reprimand them.
“If a parent was acting up, we had a coach who would remove that parent’s child from the game and send her around to the other side of the field to talk to her parent,” said Eric Edwards, the father of three children playing soccer in the Tulsa area. “It was embarrassing for the kid and the parent. The girl went back in the game right afterward but most of the other parents were saying, ‘Thank God the coach did that.’”
In early May, Barlow donned his bright yellow referee jersey to work a semifinal game of the Oklahoma high school state soccer championships in Tulsa. To his relief, it went smoothly, with no irate parents or fans — and one even thanked him.
“That kind of thing does happen,” he said afterward, soaked in sweat outside the locker room. “Lots of people get it and are very nice, too.”
Earlier that day, Barlow was having breakfast with a handful of soccer coaches and administrators. One coach at the table, Richard Beattie, conceded that he was once the kind of person who might have ended up as a video star on Barlow’s Facebook page. But a few years ago, at a coaches meeting, he saw himself on video kicking a water bottle and yelling at the referee. He was embarrassed and resolved to change.
“I was once the biggest abuser,” Beattie said, “and if I can say that my behavior was unacceptable and had to change, then other people can do it, too.”
“This is what I mean, this is what we’re trying to do,” Barlow said. “Have we won the war? No. Are we fighting back? Yeah, we are.”