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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Opinion: Investments of the heart

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Graphic by Cameron Johnson

Opinion writer Ryan Lindner reflects on his time as a youth basketball referee and the vitriol directed toward amateur refs. 

As a teenager, there aren’t many available jobs an average person would describe as “desirable.” You can apply to bus tables at a local restaurant, work in fast food, cut grass, or if working isn’t your style, you could always hope your parents are feeling generous. Not wanting to beg my frugal parents, I got a job as quickly as possible.
As it turns out, having zero real work experience and being unavailable from 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday doesn’t open many doors in the business world. Even more shocking, putting “Proficient with Google Docs” on a resume doesn’t impress employers much either. Having no desire to work at Taco Bell or McDonald’s, I decided to be a youth basketball referee. Big mistake, but it shouldn’t have been.
For my entire life, I adored sports, particularly basketball. I played for my middle and high school and competed in multiple Amateur Athletic Union teams, where we would travel far and wide for tournaments almost every weekend. I worked with formidable trainers who pushed me to understand the game’s complexities. Despite being immersed in basketball, I glimpsed a new, darker side of youth sports whenever I donned the black and white striped uniform.
No matter the call my fellow referee or I would make, we were assailed by parents who not only disagreed with the call, but acted as if we were personally attacking the players. I’m not talking about the commonplace nagging at the referee — an otherwise respectful disagreement. Such instances of controversy are to be expected and often welcomed at sporting events. Instead, I’m referring to the frequent occasions where parents would belligerently approach me during or after the game and scream that I was “targeting” their child or that I was “receiving bribes.” At one point, a coach even laid hands on me in a manner I wouldn’t necessarily describe as friendly.
To be fair, I did make mistakes while officiating. All referees do, and the point is to learn from them. However, refs are tasked with an impossible assignment — to make split-second decisions where every call can change the game’s outcome. There is no time for carefully judging which rule was fractured. There is no instant playback. And there certainly isn’t any time for self-doubt.
Despite its difficulty, most referees do it because they possess a genuine passion for the sport (trust me, it isn’t the money). However, sometimes passion isn’t strong enough to undergo constant abuse, especially when it becomes physical. Take the story of Kristi Moore, for instance.
A decade-long softball umpire, Moore was assaulted after officiating a 12-year-old girl’s softball match in Laurel, Mississippi. One of the player’s mothers, Kiara Thomas, repeatedly shouted obscenities at Moore until she was asked to leave the premises. After the game, Thomas approached Moore and punched her in front of all the other parents and children.
After the event, Moore took to Facebook, where she posted about the abuse faced by most sporting officials and how these behaviors have caused a severe drought of experienced umpires.
“The next time you go to a tournament and you only have one umpire on the field … this is why,” Moore wrote. “When the day comes that your kid can’t play a ballgame because there are no longer officials to call it … THIS.IS.WHY.”
Moore’s experience is more than just an anecdote. A 2017 study by the National Association of Sports Officials found 87% of the 17,000 respondents reported being verbally abused while officiating, 13% were victims of physical violence and a majority felt that it’s the parents to blame.
To me, the reason is simple. Parents spend more time and money than ever on getting their kids on prestigious club teams and access to the so-called “elite” trainers. While not inherently harmful, the danger arises when the game becomes more about protecting an investment instead of their kid having fun. Thus, whenever an official makes a call against a player, it’s often seen as a personal attack. The referee is no longer considered an objective rule enforcer. Rather, they are a threat who is unfairly picking on a player.
My year and a half of reffing was characterized mainly by exhausting stretches of six to eight back-to-back games, combined with having to put up with parents who consider the officials as the only thing standing in their kids’ way to NBA stardom. (Unknown to me, at the time, the 12U local basketball league is where all the high-level scouts spend their Saturdays). However, there were also incredibly heartwarming times to be the guy with the whistle. Seeing a kid score their first basket, a team winning the championship or even simply witnessing the unmistakable joy written over the youngsters’ faces after a hard-fought game.
There are a multitude of things to love about youth sports culture, from hard-working and humble kids, loving and supporting parents to the vast number of volunteer coaches and assistants who dedicate their evenings and weekends to ensuring the team runs smoothly. For many players, putting on their team’s jersey is an immense source of joy and taking the field is their declaration of strength.
That’s the wonderful thing about sports. What you get out of it isn’t monetary. It’s the friends made, lessons learned, character built and the fun had along the way. As a referee, you get to see all of this, but you also see what happens when the priceless is replaced with a mere obsession over financial investment. The result is profanities shouted, fists thrown and people hurt.
If we wish to maintain a healthy sports culture, we must remember to keep it all in perspective, even when the stakes are high. Perhaps your kid isn’t destined for collegiate greatness, and that’s okay. After all, it’s the investments of the heart that stand the test of time.
Ryan Lindner is a political science sophomore and opinion writer for The Battalion.

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About the Contributor
Ryan Lindner
Ryan Lindner, Head Opinion Editor
Ryan Lindner is a political science senior from Hutto, Texas, minoring in history. Ryan joined The Battalion as an opinion columnist in June 2022  until he became the Assistant Opinion Editor for the Spring 2023 semester. Since July 2023, Ryan has been The Battalion's Head Opinion Editor. Ryan has covered a range of topics, from local politics and campus culture to national issues, such as school choice and drug policy. After graduation, Ryan hopes to pursue a master's degree in international affairs.
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