Parents enrolling their children in Anne Arundel County youth sports leagues will have to sign a pledge vowing to play nice and not criticize referees if they want their kids to play ball.
Echoing the efforts of youth league leaders across the country to grapple with increasing verbal abuse of game officials by parents, the county Department of Recreation and Parks added the pledge to its sign-up form last week to try to stop the sideline sniping.
Dennis M. Callahan, department director, said parents -- and coaches -- have been known to yell at game officials on the field, and to follow referees to their cars to continue berating them.
The abuse has driven some referees to quit in recent months.
Callahan said his department had to do something, with increasing numbers of children -- especially girls -- playing sports, and a healthy economy making referees harder to recruit because they might not need the part-time job.
"It's not just Anne Arundel County," Callahan said. "It's a national phenomenon. We're saying, 'We're just not going to tolerate it anymore.' "
About 20,000 children, ages 8 to 17, play in Anne Arundel leagues.
Their parents must promise not to "publicly criticize a game official's ruling during or immediately after an athletic contest."
Parents who violate the pledge could be barred from events.
Sheila Franklin, executive director of the Maryland Recreation and Parks Association, said she doesn't know of any other counties in the state making parents sign a pledge before their children can play.
Some Baltimore-area schools and leagues have tried to encourage parents to tone down the referee-bashing by drawing up behavior guidelines or distributing instructions on "How To Yell," as the Lutherville-Timonium soccer program did this fall.
In September, the Florida-based National Alliance for Youth Sports started pushing leagues and counties to require parents to attend a program emphasizing how they should be role models for their children during games.
"With today's different stresses, people running here and there and sports role models and stars engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct, we have lost perspective in youth sports," said Kathleen Avitt, national program director for the alliance.
"We have forgotten that youth sports is about having fun, learning about teamwork, skills, sports and letting the kids play. It's not about the parents and having to win at all costs. We need to put this back in perspective."
Tom DeGraw, a part-time football official who also recruits and dispatches referees for a group that assigns officials in Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, said he started noticing parents becoming overcompetitive and abusive to game officials in the last two to three years.
DeGraw said children have seen their parents shout vulgar insults at referees, interrupt a game to protest a decision and yell and intimidate the opposing team.
"This year is the first year I've had trouble filling some games," said DeGraw, who lost seven referees this year and knows of at least four who plan to quit next year.
"Yeah, we get paid for doing this, but we don't do this for the money. We do it because we like sports. A lot of guys have been saying, 'We're not going to do this any more. We're tired of taking the abuse.' I have somebody yelling at me, saying I'm blind, stupid, all this stuff. And I wonder, 'Why am I out here doing this?' "
Franklin Chaney, Anne Arundel's recreation administrator, said some parents push children -- vicariously reliving their childhoods through their offspring, or perhaps seeing sports ability as a factor in college scholarships.