In professional sports, ripping the referee has always been seen, sadly, as part of the game. In baseball, jawing at the umpire nose to nose has that element of theater to it. And John McEnroe’s tantrums at the feet of stone-faced chair umpires were as entertaining as his half-volleys.

But in the world of youth sports, ripping the ref has consequences.

The Chicago Tribune’s Kate Thayer recently reported that in Illinois as well as the rest of the country, the number of people working as umpires and referees at youth sports leagues and high school sporting events is dropping. The Illinois High School Association says it has 12,310 licensed referees and umpires, 2,000 fewer than it had during the 2010-11 school year. Youth sports leagues in the Chicago area say they’re struggling to find people to ref and ump games.

The reason? Parents, coaches and fans behaving badly.

In 2016, the then-mayor of south suburban Monee was accused of breaking the jaw of an umpire at a youth baseball game. The man, who was coaching, became upset that the umpire had given an 8-year-old batter an extra strike. In February in Charlotte, North Carolina, a coach got angry with calls being made at a fourth grade basketball game and charged onto the court, slapping one referee in the back of the head and punching another. In January in Raytown, Missouri, a fan at a junior varsity basketball game was arrested after he walked onto the court and allegedly sucker-punched a referee. The list goes on.

There’s nothing entertaining about watching some half-in-the-bag dad screaming at a 17-year-old umpire over a call at the plate, or a soccer mom going ballistic with a ref over her 9-year-old getting tripped on a breakaway.

The biggest impact of these ugly displays, however, is on the youngsters who have to watch them. Kids learn so much from youth sports — the value of teamwork, the notion of fair play, the meaning behind trying your hardest. But what’s the takeaway when a 7-year-old watches his or her coach unload on an ump?

The National Association of Sports Officials last year found that 87 percent of referees and umpires responding had experienced verbal abuse when officiating. It’s no wonder many are opting out.

When games start getting canceled because there’s no one to officiate, maybe parents and coaches will start thinking twice about blowing their tops at a ref or ump. But there’s an even better reason why they should think twice: those 7- and 8-year-olds standing there petrified.

Editorial by the Chicago Tribune

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