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'They are kids': The campaign to stop abuse against young referees, umpires in Nova Scotia

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It doesn’t matter the age, amateur sports can get heated with anger often directed towards the young officials.

"Just imagine a 13-year-old getting confronted by an adult, 30, 40, 50 years old. Just that intimidation would be difficult to deal with," said Joel Rodgers, Baseball Nova Scotia Umpire Division's president.

Now, there's an initiative to stop the abuse. Eight sports organizations in Nova Scotia are working together to address the issue -- starting with green armbands for officials, referees and umpires under the age of 18.

"It's never OK to abuse an official, but we really want to make sure that we curb it out with the younger officials that are out there, so we're hoping this will make people think twice," said Baseball Nova Scotia's executive director Brandon Guenette.

The majority of the umpires in the province, approximately 70 per cent, are 18 and under.

"They are kids, and they are learning the game, and in a lot of cases, they're no older than the players that are on the field also learning the game," said Guenette.

Baseball Nova Scotia implemented the green armbands last year, and has already seen positive results.

"The number of incidents that were happening dramatically reduced as the season went on," said Rodgers.

The other provincial organizations involved in the 'Respect the Game, Respect the Officials' joint awareness campaign are basketball, football, lacrosse, rugby, soccer, softball, and volleyball.

The Green Armband Initiative aims to stop abuse against young referees and umpires.

"We are very excited about the collective launch of this program, which we hope will go a long way to support the long-term growth and development of our younger or 'newer to the sport' officials across many sports," said Basketball Nova Scotia's executive director Lori Lancaster.

"We are currently facing many challenges when it comes to the recruitment and retention of basketball officials, and we feel this program will help highlight and promote the tolerance and respect needed to ensure we are able to develop and support these officials."

While the initiative isn't brand new, it is gaining traction.

Hockey Nova Scotia started using the armbands in the fall of 2022.

"I know myself as a coach, if I see someone with a green armband, I try to be a little more patient with them, so I think it's helped across the board," said Jamie Aalders, Cole Harbour Minor Hockey's president.

Aalders is also an umpire assignor in the Dartmouth, N.S., region and has seen the positive impact of the initiative across multiple sports. His two youngest sons are both referees and umpires, and they wear the armbands.

"They enjoy it. They feel a little more confident, a little more safe out there," said Aalders.

Another goal of this initiative is to improve retention rates.

"Without these young officials, there won't be games being played. So hopefully the education process will work and we can retain and keep more," said Rodgers.

Retention does seem to be improving. Rodgers said in 2019, there were 540 umpires in Nova Scotia. There was a drop during the pandemic, and there were only 380 by 2023. He said so far this year there are 410, which is an improvement over last year, and he expects the number to grow to 450.

"We're getting the messaging out there. I'm hoping that a lot of it is connected with the green armbands."

The policies differ league-to-league, but generally, if a parent or coach is suspended for abusing a young official wearing the green armband, they will face stiffer penalties.

For more Nova Scotia news visit our dedicated provincial page. 

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