Viewpoint: Make Kids Referee Their Own Sports Games

If we want to stop violent assaults in youth sports, we need to change the rules of the game

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It’s often said that team sports serve as a proxy for actual violence. But last week, the metaphor became tragically real when soccer referee, Ricardo Portillo, died a week after receiving a punch to the face from an enraged 17 year-old who had just been issued a “yellow card” warning from the referee. The student now faces possible murder charges. We’ve grown accustomed to violent assaults at kids’ sporting events perpetrated by parents, coaches, players, and other spectators. Scenes like this pile-on from a crowd of parents at a Texas Pee-Wee football game have become a staple of local news reports and YouTube. According to Barry Mano, the president of the National Association of Sports Officials, assaults against referees in youth sport leagues have become increasingly common.

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But there might be a way to reduce these explosive episodes at school sporting events: give high school players themselves, not referees, more responsibility for the game. One team sport that seems immune to the brawls and attacks is the increasingly popular Ultimate (formerly Ultimate Frisbee). Played with a flying disk, and containing elements of football, rugby, and soccer, Ultimate is known for its commitment to fair play and “spirit of the game.” A key feature is self-officiating: there are no referees to keep score or make on-the-fly calls and players share collective ownership of the way the game is played.

This shift in responsibility has benefits beyond reducing violent incidents. By removing the third party arbiter, players in this fast-paced, athletically demanding game learn quickly how to work together to avoid unnecessary conflicts that will affect everyone’s wellbeing. It’s not that Ultimate players lack the will to win. But because players have to look at each other face to face when there is a potential dispute, and not turn to a neutral (and often nameless) authority figure, both sides have a powerful incentive to play fairly and keep tempers under control: Just like the Cold War days of mutually assured destruction, Ultimate teams know that what goes around comes around. That awareness of a common purpose helps to limit dishonorable or unnecessarily aggressive behavior even in extraordinarily tense environments.

This approach has actually been used to further peace in the Middle East. An organization called Ultimate Peace was founded in 2009 to bring the principles of Ultimate to children in areas of the world where cooperation and understanding across ethnic groups are limited. The organization has already worked in 14 communities, with Arab, Jewish, and Palestinian youth playing – and self-refereeing – their games, side by side. The Ultimate Peace model is such a success that the organization has started a training program for youth coaches and is expanding to Columbia.

If this strategy can work in such a demanding geopolitical context, surely American high school players can give it a try too. The potential benefits might extend beyond the fields and rinks and courts. Teenagers who learn to be accountable to one another may find it easier to be accountable to themselves, too, and this ethos could extend to their academic work and personal decision-making. (Schools would save money not hiring referees too.)

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Naysayers may claim that Ultimate is an outlier and certain sports just won’t “work” if teenagers take over the adjudicating. And that may be true if by “working” we mean winning at all costs through excessive aggression, intentional fouls, harassing opponents and otherwise behaving badly. But we should give kids a chance to learn that it’s possible to play a highly competitive team sport in high school without abusing people or putting their lives at risk.

As the Ultimate USA rule book explains: “(It is) assumed that no Ultimate player will intentionally violate the rules; thus there are no harsh penalties for inadvertent infractions, but rather a method for resuming play in a manner that simulates what would most likely have occurred had there been no infraction.” This seems like a good template for life off the field, too.