Written By: John O’Sullivan, Founder of the Changing the Game Project
Imagine the perfect summer day. The sun is out, the birds are chirping. And a bunch of 7-year-olds are scurrying about a ball field, trying to hit, run, throw, and catch, all the while smiling and giggling and doing what 7-year-olds do. But then the game gets tense. Parents and coaches started chirping at each other, at the players, and at the umpire. A call is missed. Then another. The situation worsens.
The umpire, a 13-year-old, warns both coaches and their fans. Yet, the tension escalates. Parents are dropping curse words, and pointing fingers trying to get others thrown out. Finally, it all breaks loose. Coaches argue. Parents get into it with one another. And it ends in a fight that goes viral. Five people are arrested. Two are suspended from their jobs. And Cordova, when interviewed after the game, said the following: “I was scared not only for me but the 7-year-olds who happened to be on the field at the time. We never thought anyone would fight at a [youth] baseball game. I thought maybe by issuing a warning, everyone would just chill, take a step back, and realize how stupid they were acting … but [I] guess not.”
This isn’t made up. This just happened at a youth baseball game in Colorado in 2019. And while it was NOT at an official Little League program, we can learn a lot of valuable lessons from what happened. A perfect summer day ended in assault charges and public shaming. Why? Why would people go to jail over things that happen at a 7-year-old baseball game? Since when did the results of a 7-year-old baseball game matter? Most of those kids don’t even know all the rules of baseball, most cannot even throw from the pitcher’s mound to home plate without a bounce, and certainly, most of them wouldn’t dare argue with the umpire. Now their season is canceled. They don’t get to play baseball, maybe ever again, and some families’ lives are ruined. It is 7-year-old baseball!
Throughout the country, verbal abuse of umpires and game officials has gotten so out of hand that some states are now creating laws against such harassment. We need to be a model for other sporting organizations. Umpires should not be afraid for their safety. Did you know that 80% of first-year umpires in some places do not return for a second year? We are reaching a tipping point that requires drastic action. And it starts with every one of us knowing our role.
When you attend a Little League event, you can be one of four things:
- Manager/Coach: leads and organizes the athletes
- Athlete: participates in the competition
- Fan: cheers on the participants
- Umpire: applies the rules to the best of his/her ability
That is it. You cannot be more than one at the same time. Each one has certain roles and responsibilities, and if you try and be a fan and one of these, things get messy and stress levels increase. For example, we see this a lot at youth sporting events:
The Fan Coach: You all know the parent who keeps a running dialogue with their child and gives instructions on every play. If you are not the team coach, please do not coach your kid come game time. It does not help if you arrive on game day and start telling the team where to run, how to hit, or what base to throw it to, The reason we only have one teacher in school is so kids do not get confused by conflicting instructions in the classroom. Imagine there were 28 sets of parents there each day during math. Come game day, though, oftentimes the manager is drowned out by the 16 parent-coaches yelling conflicting instructions to the players on the field. The result, more often than not, is not action, but inaction from the player. They don’t know who to listen to. Give them the space to learn!
The Fan Umpire: We all know this person as well. They may be 75 yards away from the play, while the actual umpire is a few feet, but clearly, they saw it better. When you go to watch your child’s game, you must remember that you are going there as a fan and not as umpire – although we would love if you would learn, we need umpires! In all seriousness, though, when you live and die with every call and you scream in disagreement at a close decision, you not only make the environment a negative learning one for your child, but you set an incredibly poor example for him or her. We cannot expect young children to respect the umpires if they spend the entire game listening to their parents disrespect them. We cannot expect young men and women to continue umpiring our children’s games if all they get is grief. So, the next time there is a questionable strike called, or a close call at first base, ask yourself “does it really even matter? Will anyone actually remember this game six months from now?”
The Coach Umpire: Instead of coaching his or her players, the coach-umpire lives and dies with every call, argues pointless strikes or outs, and often makes a fool of himself, embarrasses his or her players, and gets everyone riled up about nothing. It’s youth sports. It’s about the kids. If you want to umpire, then please, by all means, be an ump. You are needed! But if you are going to coach, then coach and leave the calls to someone else. Teach your kids to get on with the next play instead of complaining about the last one.
It’s time that all of us step up and understand our role as Little League supporters. We can play, we can coach, we can umpire, or we can be a fan. In our experience, every incident that happens at a Little League event usually arises when a person, usually an adult, tries to take on multiple roles. Let’s all take the next step to make the Little League experience about the players and ensure all of our Little Leaguers® leave the field with positive memories and a community that is there to support them.
Remember the change starts at home. Next time you attend a youth baseball game, know your role and stick to it. Let the kids play! Let the coaches coach. And let the umpires make the calls. The children will appreciate you for it.
This article is part of a content partnership with John O’Sullivan, Founder of the Changing the Game Project, to provide its parents and volunteer coaches with educational resources and guidance to create a better Little League experience for all children.