Protecting Children on the Ice: Referees and Responsibility (Guest Submission pt.1)
This provocative guest submission by Thomas Babson, et al, deserves widespread dissemination and consideration. There has been an awful lot written (including here), about the issue of brain injuries in contact sports, primarily football and hockey. However, this is the first piece that persuasively focuses on the important role of the game referees in preventing the violent play that often leads to concussions. In all sports, including hockey (the focus of this essay), the primary responsibility of game referees must be to control the game and promote safety. That fact must be an ongoing point of emphasis in all leagues and at all levels. However, in order to effectively fulfill that role, game referees need the support of all stakeholders who love the games (fans, coaches, players, administrators and sports journalists). May this essay be the rallying point toward that end.
This is Part 1 in a series. Also see: Part 2 – Reducing Violence in Youth Hockey: The Solution
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
Protecting Children on the Ice: Referees and Responsibility
By Thomas Babson, with Dr. David Greenstein and Alden S. Blodget
(Supporting organization: Sports Legacy Institute)
I love ice hockey. It killed me, is killing me. My brain, like the surface of the moon, cratered from years of collisions with the boards, sticks, elbows, ice. Isolated, distant, circling the inhabited world, still trying to communicate with it. Pills for ungovernable rage, pills for depression, pills for migraines. Chunks of me gone, unrecognizable to my wife and child, myself. Words gone, memories gone. And still loving hockey–the speed and grace and skill, the team, the exhilaration. The illusion of invulnerability.
I started playing hockey when I was 6 years old. I played in school and college, then in some semi-pro and adult leagues. I worked with the 1998 USA gold medal Olympic women’s team and was director of the USA National Women’s Hockey Festival, head coach of women’s hockey at Boston College, and coach of youth hockey for many years starting when my son was 3. Thirteen concussions later, now in my 60s, the time bomb of traumatic brain injury finally detonating, I struggle to organize my thoughts, control my anger and find the words that I want to use in my final effort to rescue hockey from the violence and damage that threaten our children and that threaten hockey itself.
My goal is to change the culture of youth hockey by challenging the conventional idea that no one bears ultimate responsibility for controlling the games. Not true. The authorities on the ice during a game, the only ones with the power to eject dangerous players or to stop a game entirely, are the referees. They control the game.
When I discuss this essential point with various people in youth hockey, typically, they misunderstand me. “No,” they say, “although officials can influence the actions of the players with proper rule enforcement, officials cannot ‘control’ the players.” That is not my point. I draw a clear distinction between “controlling the players” and “controlling the game.” I agree completely with the observation that officials cannot control the players. That responsibility is correctly placed on the coaches, the players themselves and their parents.
However, when coaches, players and parents fail to control the players, the last line of defense against serious injury is the referees on the ice during the actual game. Either the refs accept their responsibility to enforce the rules and exercise their authority over the way the game is played or they don’t. When they don’t, players can and do get badly hurt.
The past five years have brought about a dramatic increase in awareness of the dangers of concussions, as well as a desire to make youth sports, including youth hockey, safe. USA Hockey (USAH), the governing body for American youth hockey, has been aggressive in its efforts to reduce the incidence of concussions in youth hockey, both through education and rule changes. Rule changes recently passed include moving the start of checking from the Peewee level (ages 11-12) to the Bantams (ages 13-14), making all contact (even unintentional contact) to the head a penalty, and reducing avoidable body checks to a player who is no longer in possession of the puck.
The rule changes have one overriding goal: to decrease the number of situations in which games get “out of control” because of escalating cycles of violent and dangerous play. Bad things can happen late in games. Anyone who has played contact sports understands this phenomenon and the psychology behind it. Frustration builds as games progress, especially if players feel that refs are ignoring repeated violence penalties (hits to the head, hits from behind, roughing, boarding, and charging). Retaliation becomes inevitable and increasingly violent at exactly the same time that players become more tired and vulnerable to injury.
During the telecast of the first period of the US-Canada Women’s Olympic hockey game on February 12, 2014, in Sochi, Pierre McGuire, game commentator and winner of the 2013 Sports Emmy for outstanding sports reporting, made the comment on a missed call by the referee: “That sends a message to both benches when they let that check go. They [the players] now know they have a little leeway to play more physical.”
During the three years (2010-2013) that I coached a Peewee and Bantam team in the Greater Boston Youth Hockey League (GBYHL), there were 17 concussions. All of these occurred in games, as opposed to practice, and the majority (15 of 17) occurred in the third period, as opposed to earlier in the game. Concussions were also much more common in games that coaches and spectators identified as “excessively violent.”
Preventing this cycle of escalating violence is essential if the new rules aimed at preventing serious head injuries are going to have the desired effect. Although all participants in youth hockey (players, coaches, referees, administrators and even parents) must accept some responsibility for making games safer, ultimate responsibility for control of games rests with the specific officials on the ice during actual play: the referees.
Parents can do their best at home to emphasize fair play, and they can control their own behavior at games, but their sphere of influence is limited. Players must control their own behavior but have minimal control over the behavior of the other players on the ice. Similarly, coaches must influence the behavior of their players through education and discipline, but they are generally limited in their ability to control the behavior of opposing coaches and players. And none of these participants has any authority over the referees.
Referees, on the other hand, run the show. They manage all of the participants and all of the action on the ice. And they are the only stakeholders who have the power to exercise this authority. According to Rule 502 (a) of the USAH rule book, “The referee shall have general supervision of the game and his decision shall be final in all matters occurring before, during or after the game. The role of the official is to enforce the rules of the game and in doing so shall have full authority over all participants.” The USAH rule book also says, “Each official should enforce all playing rules fairly and respectfully with the safety of the players and the best interest of the game in mind. Players must be held accountable for dangerous and illegal actions with the proper enforcement of the rules at all times.”
The mandate for refs couldn’t be clearer, and to enable them to keep the games safe, the rule book gives referees an array of tools: various levels of penalties, ejections, and suspensions with which to punish dangerous play. They have the authority and responsibility to control a game by calling these penalties, setting a proper tone, and, ultimately, if dangerous play can’t be controlled, stopping a game before catastrophic injuries occur. Yet the culture of youth hockey–the pervading attitude about who is ultimately responsible for what happens on the ice during a game–prevents everyone from rethinking the role of the referees.
During my three years coaching in the GBYHL, I conducted a survey of this culture. The first part explored coaches’ and referees’ attitudes regarding contact to the head, concussions, game violence and responsibility for controlling game violence. I interviewed 21 coaches and 19 referees. Each survey included the question, “Who do you think is most responsible for controlling unnecessary violence in youth hockey games?” Despite the remarkably clear language in the rule book, none of the 19 referees identified themselves as being primarily responsible.
In addition, only 2 of 19 referees interviewed agreed with the statement that “referees have a responsibility to control the violence in a game situation beyond the strict written rules.” The refs voiced a fairly unified attitude: “It’s not our job to control anything. We see a penalty and we call it. It’s the coaches’ job to control their players. We call the book. That’s it.” Evidently, rule 502 is irrelevant to “the book.”
The result among coaches was not much different. Of the 21 coaches interviewed, only 9 said that referees were most responsible for controlling violence. The remaining 12 coaches identified either “coaches” or “players” as being primarily responsible. This attitude echoes the results of a larger Canadian referee survey, “Violence in Canadian Amateur Hockey,” written by Alun Ackery, Charles Tator and Carolyn Snider. In this larger study, 63% of the 632 referees surveyed said coaches “are the most important individuals for determining player safety.” That, of course, is not what the rule book says or what common sense dictates.
The second component of this study was a review of media attitudes as reflected in articles available in Douglas Abram’s “Today’s Articles.” Abram has been compiling a daily list of articles from newspapers and magazines, medical reports and research papers dealing with sports and society since 2001. My study reviewed all of approximately 3000 articles from 2009 to 2013 to identify those that related specifically to concussions, injury, and violence in youth sports and that discussed player, coach, and referee responsibility for preventing violence and injury.
Of the relevant 328 articles, 103 described the behavior of coaches, players, spectators, and administrators. The behaviors documented in these articles were overwhelmingly negative, with few instances of positive behavior documented. Of those 103 articles, 65 focused on the role of coaches, 18 focused on the role of players, 20 focused on the role of spectators, and 6 focused on the role of administrators. Only 4 of the 65 articles regarding behavior of coaches were positive. The remaining 61, as well as all of the articles about players and spectators, were critical of the coaches’ behavior and/or suggested that the coaches needed to do more to control their players and support the referees.
In contrast to this negative portrayal of coaches, players, spectators, and administrators, the treatment of referees and their performance was much more limited, was much less critical, and contained minimal references to referees and their failure to maintain control of games. Referee performance was specifically discussed in only 19 of the 328 articles. Seventeen of the 19 articles focused solely on the difficulty of refereeing and suggested that referees need to be treated with greater respect. Only 2 of the 19 articles focused on the need for referees to call more consistent and stricter games in order to minimize the risk of injury. One of these was an article by Doug Abrams describing an excessively violent game between New Trier High School and Glenbrook North High School, played in 1999 in the Chicago suburb of Gurnee.
Abrams commented that it was a “tragic game” that was “out of control from the opening faceoff” with players and fans taunting each other and engaging in numerous confrontations. The game ended with a vicious illegal hit that left a 15-year-old player permanently paralyzed from the neck down.
Abrams makes a long and commendable plea for greater civility and respect for the game and for player safety. Even in this article, however, the criticism of referees was relatively muted. Abrams laments that as the game “spiraled out of control for an hour or more, no coach, referee, league administrator or parent had the common sense to stop the game, deliver a public address announcement requesting respect for the rules, or otherwise move the teams from the brink before it was too late.” Beyond this general indictment of everyone, there is no special blame for the referees and no mention that the referees were the ones with the ultimate responsibility for controlling this game and with the unique prerogative to terminate the game.
The reasons that youth hockey referees might fail to understand or accept their responsibility or might fail to ensure player safety are complicated and multifaceted. Unfortunately, some referees embody a seemingly unconscious, but startling contradiction in their attitudes toward player safety. On one hand, they told me that player safety was “very important to them,” and they seemed sincere in their concern. On the other hand, these same refs saw no connection between player safety and their own philosophy about calling games or about specific rules designed to protect players: “I cannot call all of the penalties because we’d never get out of the first period”; “I won’t call contact-to-the-head penalties if they are unintentional because I don’t agree with the way the rules have been rewritten.” Neither of these philosophies is conducive to maintaining control of games or maximizing player safety.
Others point to the sheer difficulty of refereeing some hockey games. They have a point. It’s not difficult to sympathize with the challenges they face. Some older referees, especially as the speed of players has increased, cannot skate fast enough to cover the ice when there is only one referee and one linesman assigned to the game. They may have to officiate three games in a row on the same day and can miss infractions because they are tired and cannot get to the correct position to make a call. Sometimes, they concentrate solely on the puck and miss what happens the moment after a play when the puck moves to another part of the ice. The ref’s eyes follow the puck and miss the illegal hit on the player who just passed the puck. These moments frequently offer the most dangerous opportunities for frustrated players to slam an opponent into the boards.
On-ice officials are especially sensitive about interfering with the flow of games, the competitive nature of games or the outcome of games. They know how angry and aggressive coaches and parents can become when they perceive what they call referee interference: “Dammit, ref, just let them play.” As a result, referees often feel emotionally intimidated, and many suffer actual verbal or physical abuse. According to the Canadian referee study, more than 90% of the 632 referees said that they had been the objects of such abuse. In addition, 55% of referees said that the aggressive behavior directed against them resulted in their losing control of the game, and 71% believe that verbal or physical abuse of referees by coaches, fans, and parents results in an increased risk of injury to players. Faced with these potentially intimidating game situations, it is not hard to imagine some youth hockey referees being unable or unwilling to exert control of the game. This reaction is particularly true for many young, less experienced referees who work in youth hockey.
Some people argue that the youngest referees, those under age 18, can’t be expected to confront older, veteran coaches. USAH administrators seem to have addressed this issue because they try to put these young refs in Mite and Squirt games (in which checking is banned) and let them work their way to levels that allow checking. The USAH Officiating Assigner’s Handbook states, “Game management responsibility lies primarily with the on-ice officials, all of whom will be registered at the appropriate level within the USA Hockey Officiating Program.” During my 3-year study, in the 131 games (Peewee and Bantam) in which I was a coach, not one referee was an inexperienced teenager. They all held the appropriate level ratings, and the younger ones were teamed with older, more experienced officials. Clearly, availability of mature, experienced referees can be a challenge. However, if there isn’t at least one official on the ice who can control the game, the situation is inherently dangerous and violates USAH guidelines. Still, even when teamed with a more experienced official, the younger, less experienced refs face real challenges. Referees in college and professional hockey are more trained, experienced and confident.
In addition, youth hockey referees tend to be less well supervised than are referees in college and pro leagues. College and pro leagues typically allocate substantial resources to referee training and oversight. It is common for every college and pro game to be videotaped, reviewed and graded by experienced referee supervisors, who speak to those who are not performing as expected. The oversight of referees in youth hockey is much less formal and often non-existent.
All college and pro coaches know that, if they have a problem with any particular referee, the head of referees for the league is a phone call away. Unfortunately, youth hockey league officials rarely have the resources or time to respond to calls, so it’s not surprising that coaches are not encouraged to make their feelings known. For instance, none of the coaches or referees surveyed in the GBYHL had ever seen the Supervisor of Officials at a game. When the league president was asked whether his supervisor did, in fact, attend games to make sure that his officials are doing a proper job, he responded that the supervisor was “too busy.” When someone proposed a system that would allow coaches to provide comments about referees so that the supervisor would at least have some insight into games he had not attended, the president responded that the league had no interest in disciplining its referees because it was “hard enough to find referees as it is” and that the league “did not have the time for this, anyway.”
And while it may be true that the two well-meaning administrators in the GBYHL were legitimately “too busy” to attend games or bother with a system of feedback that encouraged referees to take control of games, the young players remain vulnerable to crippling injuries. Who is going to protect them? If the referees don’t want the responsibility, if they reject the notion that they have a responsibility and are unwilling to hold themselves accountable, and if the league administrators are not willing to hold them accountable, who’s left?
Perhaps journalists and commentators need to get involved. Reporting instances when referees fail to maintain control might pressure league officials and stir parents and fans to speak up. This strategy worked effectively in professional football to help end the referee strike of 2012. During the strike when less experienced substitute referees were used, reporters and commentators constantly talked about player safety. An editorial in the Record-Journal (Meriden, CT) argued, “The NFL is permitting . . . unprepared amateurs to oversee a hyper-aggressive sport in which poor officiating allows play to become increasingly violent. Substitute referees seem confused about technicalities regarding what is and isn’t unnecessary force. Ultra-competitive players have caught on and taken advantage. Aggression is markedly up [and] on-field fighting seems more prevalent, as players know the refs cannot maintain control.” This sort of media coverage resulted in arousing fans and pressuring referees and the NFL to end the strike.
The same strategy might work in youth hockey. Greater emphasis in articles and more published research on the frequency of concussions and on the actual game conditions that cause them could increase public pressure on youth hockey referees and administrators to exert more control of games in order to improve player safety. Referees should not enjoy any special immunity from criticism.
The problem of player safety is real. The New York Times reported in 2010 that among the 9000 11- and 12-year-olds playing hockey in Alberta, Canada, roughly 700 concussions are reported each year. By some estimates the number has been rising at an annual rate of 15%. The known association between repeated childhood brain trauma and future emotional and cognitive impairment gives added urgency to these frightening statistics.
Ultimately, referees must accept their responsibility for controlling the game and minimizing the risk of serious player injury. Regardless of how difficult the situation may be, regardless of whether irresponsible coaches and parents are shouting insults, regardless of age or experience, referees have a job to do, and they need to do it. They need to call penalties, create a proper tone and, if necessary, call a halt to games that are getting out of hand. And when they don’t, they need to be held accountable by everyone.
I do not mean to suggest that insisting that referees control the games will solve all the problems of violence and injury in hockey. The USAH’s comprehensive efforts to educate coaches, players, officials, parents and fans will continue to be important, as will efforts at the professional level to provide better role models for young players. But creating a culture that identifies specific areas of responsibility for all stakeholders, including the on-ice officials during games, will create a stronger alliance of protection for our children. And, ultimately, this sort of alliance would make the job easier for the referees.
Of course, many referees do their job and are good at it. Legendary Bill Cleary, former gold medalist and long-time Harvard hockey coach and athletic director, understood the job and the importance of accepting ultimate responsibility for the game. In the 1960s, he refereed youth and high school hockey games: “I’d run into a game here or there where the emotions got high and the rough stuff started to get going. . . You betcha I’d do something about it. I didn’t wait until there was some dangerous stuff going on or an injury. You’ve got to have a sense about these things. When I saw a kid get heated up and start banging some kid, first I’d take him aside and say, ‘Son, that’s not to happen on this ice anymore. Next time you get out of control, you’re out of here.’ If that didn’t calm things down, I’d go to each coach and point my finger in his face and tell them, ’You shut this cheap stuff down now, or I’m ending this game right here and now! You got that?’ And you know something? That did the trick every time.”
We need more refs like Bill. Sadly, the culture of youth hockey and the attitudes about the role of referees seem to be working against improving the situation. This cannot be allowed to persist.
We don’t need any more children having their adult lives diminished and cut short because of their youthful participation in this great sport. It’s too late for me. It’s too late even for some who are playing now. It doesn’t need to be too late for those who play tomorrow.
In addition to being a teacher, actor and writer, Thomas Babson has been involved in hockey as a player or coach for almost sixty years. He starred in “Miracle on Ice” on TV and coached Paul Newman for his role on the hit movie “Slap Shot.” During his screen acting years in LA, he played on the Celebrity All-star Hockey team for many years raising money for charities throughout the country. Mr. Babson began his interest in women’s hockey after being invited to join Olympic Coach Ben Smith as a training coach for the 1998 USA gold medal Olympic team. He was also director of the USA National Women’s Hockey Festival in Lake Placid for three years (1997-99). Babson retired as head women’s hockey coach at Boston College in 2003 after four years.
Dr. David Greenstein is a physician living in the Boston area. A long-time friend of Mr. Babson and a father of two youth hockey players, he has been involved in several youth hockey organizations for many years.
Alden Blodget was a teacher and administrator in high schools for 38 years. He writes about education and the implications of new insights from neuroscience into how people learn. In addition to publishing many articles, he is author of “Learning, Schooling and the Brain: New Research vs. Old Assumptions,” and he was lead writer for “Neuroscience & the Brain: Making Connections,” an online course for teachers funded by the Annenberg Foundation, on whose site it is available.
USA Hockey 2011-2013 Official Rules of Ice Hockey
Abrams, Douglas E., Today’s Articles, 2009-2013
Abrams, Douglas E., “All Safety is Local (Part 1),” Ask Coach Wolff, March 22, 2012
Abrams, Douglas E., “Player Safety in Youth Sports: Sportsmanship and Respect as an Injury-Prevention Strategy.” January 3, 2012.
Alun Ackery, Charles Tator and Carolyn Snider, “Violence in Canadian Amateur Hockey: The Experience of Referees in Ontario,” Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 2012.
Greater Boston Youth Hockey League: Rules and Regulations
Interview with President of Greater Boston Youth Hockey League, August 2012
“The Umpire Strikes Back,” Record-Journal (Meriden, Connecticut), Editorial, Sept 2012.
Klein, Jeff Z., “With Focus on Youth Safety, A Sport Considers Changes,” New York Times, Oct. 2010.
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman, and has a long involvement with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport (now called the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition). We discuss the state of college athletics today, given the pressures of NIL, the transfer portal, sports gambling and huge media contracts. McMillen then provides great perspective on the poor state of physical fitness our young people are experiencing today.
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- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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