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 Callahan, department director, said parents -- and coaches -- in the county have been known to yell at game officials on the field, and to follow referees to their cars to continue berating them.
The verbal 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 increasingly hard to recruit because they might not need the part-time job to supplement income.
"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 any more.' "
About 20,000 children, ages 8 to 17, play in Anne Arundel County 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 30-minute program emphasizing how they should be role models for their children during games.