High school sports are back. But a problem lurks — the lack of adults to officiate the games.

And in neighboring Rhode Island, leaders of high school sports are blowing the whistle on parents as the culprits.

In a letter to media outlets, Thomas A. Mezzanotte, executive director of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League, blamed overzealous parents for verbally abusing officials, leading 80 percent of younger officials to quit within two years rather than continue to subject themselves to what the head of the Ocean State’s version of the MIAA described as a “verbal beating.”

“Athletic events in many communities in our state are being rescheduled, postponed or even cancelled because there aren’t enough men and women to officiate them,” Mezzanotte wrote. “Fewer games mean fewer opportunities for the next generation to learn the leadership skills our community needs.”

Mezzanotte and Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of High School Associations, also wrote an op-ed to Rhode Island media outlets with a strong message: “If you are the mother or father of a high school athlete in Rhode Island, this message is primarily for you.

“When you attend an athletic event that involves your son or daughter, cheer to your heart’s content, enjoy the camaraderie that high school sports offer and have fun. But when it comes to verbally criticizing game officials or coaches, cool it. …Yelling, screaming and berating the officials humiliates your child, annoys those sitting around you, embarrasses your child’s school and is the primary reason Rhode Island has an alarming shortage of high school officials.”

I have found no statistics to indicate the same thing is happening in Massachusetts. But like the EEE virus, this developing epidemic has no borders.

It’s certainly happening in other states. Check out these stats:

From 2007 to 2017, the Iowa High School Activities Association had a 12 percent decrease in its number of registered officials in seven sports. “I can see the potential for this decline to become a critical issue in the next three to five years,” IHSAA director of officials Lewie Curtis said.

The Kansas State High School Activities Association had 1,372 registered officials in all sports in 2012-13. This year, that number is down to 1,189.

The Florida High School Athletic Association had 11,029 officials for all sports during the 2010-11 school year. Less than a decade later, the number has dipped to 7,795.

As I have noted in this space before, I have officiated basketball at all levels, from kiddie leagues to high school varsity, for more than 30 years. If there’s a problem in a game — and major issues are relatively rare — it’s almost always from an adult and usually from a parent.

Listen, I get it. All parents want the best for their kids. Nobody wants to see their son or daughter lose.

But we have to remember these are not NFL games but educational opportunities for children. Young people are taught not only the game but fitness, teamwork and the rewards of hard work. With those tools, kids can learn how to be successful, how to win.

But they also must learn how to lose. Because at every sporting event, half the people walk away losers.

And think of the lesson parents teach when they scream at another adult, as long as it’s a referee.

The men and women I have worked with as a basketball referee love the game and enjoy teaching the sport to young people. They want to do a good job and — unlike parents — they have no stake in the outcome of the contest.

The better the job they do, the more games they get. Part of the reason they are doing this is, after all, to pick up a few bucks on the side.

Parents, please keep that in mind. For nearly all officials, this is a second job. I can’t tell you how many times I left my primary job, hurriedly scarfed down a sandwich in the car to work the first of at least two games.

Can mistakes be made under those situations? Absolutely. But we’ve seen plenty of mistakes made by officials whose employer is a major league.

  • One of my pet peeves was when a coach or parent would tell a kid, “That’s OK, Johnny, that wasn’t a foul” after I had blown a whistle. So many times, I felt like yelling, “Yes, it was a foul. This job is difficult enough without some adult sitting 10 rows in the stands who has never touched a rule book undermining my #@$%&$ authority.”

But I never did. And all we officials ask parents to do is also to bite their tongues.

MIKE KIRBY, a Sun Chronicle columnist, can be reached at mkirbygolf18@gmail.com.

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