'It's getting worse, it's terrible': Aggressive parents are causing a referee shortage in Washington

If you have kids in youth sports, you’ve probably seen some confrontations on the field or the court.

Referee associations locally and nationally say it is leading to a crisis in youth sports, and contributing to a massive shortage of officials right now. It’s also sparking a push for new laws to protect referees.

72-year-old Peyton Coffin is a veteran referee pushing for those new laws. He is still recovering from what he calls a brutal attack by a parent during an 8th grade basketball game at Kenmore Middle School.

"I had my back to the bleachers," said Coffin. "I wasn’t within five feet of his son. He singled me out because I was wearing a striped shirt."

The game was over and Coffin was trying to break up a scuffle between players when a parent stormed out of the stands and slammed into him.

"He runs across the court and puts his left elbow in my back, hard enough to break two ribs. I slammed down on the court, broke a nose, and fractured my cheek," Coffin recalled. 

31-year-old father Mark McLaughlin was eventually arrested and charged with assault and is currently awaiting his trial.

Coffin says it’s the worst thing he’s suffered in nearly 20 years as a referee, but it's certainly not the first confrontation.

"We’ve been chested up, we’ve been shoved, and we’ve had people come by our cars afterward and berate us."

Lezley Smith, the president of the Pacific Northwest Basketball Officials Association, who has also been a referee since the 90s, says confrontations at games, both verbal and physical, are on the rise.

"It’s getting worse," said Smith. "It’s terrible."

She says it’s one of the reasons, along with the pandemic, that there is a shortage of youth sports officials right now.

Man pleads not guilty to breaking 72-year-old referee's nose during son's basketball game

A man accused of assaulting a referee at his son's middle school basketball game has pleaded not guilty to charges in connection to the incident. 

The Washington Officials Association says it is down 800 sports officials, making it hard to cover all the games. 

According to the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), over the last year, there have been 508 player and coach ejections from games, nearly double the amount of the previous two years, though 2020-21 was a shortened season, due to the pandemic. 

"Officiating is a way to stay involved in the game and that’s why a lot of people do it," said Smith. "But if you’re at your job and someone is yelling at you, would you want to stay doing that? And so for officials, no they don’t."

The National Federation of State High School Associations says 50,000 high school refs have quit since 2019, and just last week the CEO, Karissa Niehoff, spoke out about abuse aimed at refs, saying the culture has to change.

"The boorish behavior of fans who attend sporting events is being normalized, and in fact encouraged. The issue has become so serious, that many states are proposing legislation to protect sports officials from assaults," said Niehoff.

Currently, there are 22 states, including Oregon, where there are specific charges for touching an official.

Washington is not one of them, but that could be changing.

Referee associations in the northwest are currently planning to push lawmakers for new legislation to protect refs, an effort Coffin is now involved in when he isn’t on the court or the field.

He says he won’t let one terrible incident keep him from doing something he loves.

"Tonight, I’ve got the baseball semi-finals for the metro that’s going to be a great game. These kids have worked hard all year."

He is also actively recruiting people to become sports officials to make up for the dwindling numbers, something the WIAA is also doing by offering high school athletes free training to try to recruit young officials to the games.

Coffin’s message to parents, coaches, and fans is to come to the game and cheer on their athletes, but leave the refs alone.

"Let us do our jobs and if you don’t like a call that’s fine, but it’s not a bad call, and there’s a pretty good chance I had a better angle on it than you did."