Monday, September 21, 2015
We love them. We hate them. Officials, referees, umpires. Since “referee” is actually defined as the arbitrator of disputes, controversy is a central part of their job description. So it’s no wonder that we view with suspicion and occasional derision these men and women with whistles and loud voices who have the power to affect the outcome of a game by disallowing a goal, awarding a PK, issuing yellow and, worse, red cards, or calling back a play. Our emotions run high during a game, and officiating only further inflames our ire or our joy. We cheer them or jeer them depending on how they rule, but we don’t interfere. Fans and players are traditionally restrained when it comes to physically accosting the official. In professional sports, games have been remarkably free of conflict between player and referee other than verbal scoffs, some dirt kicking, and an occasional finger in the chest. Perhaps the threat of a loss of income or even their job keep players in line. However there has been a recent disturbing trend in youth sports of actual physical attacks on the referees which may be indicative of growing open disrespect that young people express toward adults.
This growth has been documented in statistics, but we all have witnessed the increase in media reports. Reflecting this trend, The National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), now has a choice on its phone answering system for a caller to report an assault. The increase in reports prompted NASO to add assault coverage to its liability insurance that every member has a chance to purchase. There are 450,000 sports officials in the United States and 22,000 avail themselves of this insurance with the number increasing each year. The president of NASO, Barry Mano, stated to USA Today that the biggest need for the insurance has come from rec and youth leagues covering officials for all games no matter who sanctions the event.
Two recent incidents highlighted the dangerous situations in which referees have found themselves. In San Antonio early in this season, two high school players assaulted an official, Robert Watts, at a game. First, one player came from behind and tackled the ref, then the second player dove at him helmet first. Luckily, Watts was shaken but not seriously injured, although the results could have been worse. The attack was filmed and made YouTube, getting thousands of views and national attention. But Mano points out that in 2011 and 2013 two soccer officials were killed in separate incidents within 17 months of one another, but because there was no social media response, the cases were virtually unreported. One was at a youth game and the other was at an adult recreation game, and both attacks were by players. Mano used to counsel his umpires to avoid the parents who have a huge emotional investment in their kids’ games, but since 2011 more and more injuries to referees have come from players, many of them younger than 19. NASO now keeps track of assaults on its members, beginning in 1996, and there are have been dozens, many of them resulting in convictions for assault. In 2014 alone, reported player attacks on officials in amateur youth competitions occurred in sports as varied as boxing, soccer, basketball, softball and football. We have no idea how many other attacks there were against officials without affiliation with NASO or that never generated a police report. Presently, 20 states have legislated criminal laws addressing assault of sports officials by either identifying a new specific crime or adding penalties to existing criminal legislation. Two states have dealt with the problems by instituting new civil statues.
Normally we might accuse the behavior of professional athletes for influencing youth players to behave badly, but for the most part professionals confine their officiating objections to bad language and side line tantrums without directly confronting any referees. The real culprits seem to be a combination of overly zealous parents and a notable decrease in respect and civility toward referees. Kids understand how huge an investment their parents have in the outcome of a game and how significant their expectations are in the child’s play. When things don’t go as desired, a player will project his or her disappointment on the referees, whose calls might have set their success back. The intensity of their feelings and their need for the achievement they feel is necessary for approval, added to their immaturity, leads to impulsive and wrong-headed decisions. If parents continually don’t regard officials with respect, that behavior is often mimicked by the youth who lack the natural restraint to avoid resorting to a violent response. They often don’t understand the consequences of their actions, concentrating only the perceived injustice and avenging it. Both of the officials who died were felled with a single punch, nothing more than that, with the right power and placement to cause irrevocable damage.
Spectators, who are generally parents, have been implicated in several attacks on referees, however the largest group of adult offenders are the coaches. Again, here’s a group who should be modeling character and good sportsmanship to youth players, who have instead added to the melee. In one case a coach in Cyprus actually bombed the car of a youth soccer referee. We might say, that’s not America, but we have our fair share of ugly incidents. A 34-year-old coach attacked a 16-year-old referee officiating a U-11 game, then attacked the 20-year-old assistant referee who came to the referee’s defense. A coach in Pennsylvania attempted to bribe referees in the Catholic Youth Organization (yes, a church group), and when that was uncovered he began to harass and threaten the coaches to get them to refrain from testifying against him. A coach’s attack on a New Jersey youth baseball umpire led to the state enacting Sports Rage legislation.
While nearly every incident recorded in the last 20 years has involved male attackers, female players, coaches and parents have also been guilty of boorish behavior. A youth female goalkeeper upset with a call attacked a male referee last year with a Kung Fu chop, and a female Chinese fan stormed the pitch attacking a soccer referee during a youth match. A woman in Iowa attacked a referee over a call during a youth basketball game. Behaving lady-like may garner an entirely new mixed martial arts connotation if the trend continues.
Besides offering assault insurance, requiring expulsion, and pursuing prosecution, which are all after-the-fact solutions, what can we do about this violence? Most obviously, we can demand as parents that our children behave with decorum. We need to make it clear that no matter what the school rules may be, the law, or the coach’s instructions, we expect that our players will refrain from any physical contact with officials. However, if we don’t model the proper behaviors, then we’re sending mixed messages which will only lead kids to respond with whatever immediate knee-jerk reaction seems most appropriate. We need to keep our anxiety about their success on the field from dictating our angry responses if we feel they are “failing” due to an official’s calls. We should redefine success to include the ability to behave coolly and rationally under the pressure and adverse conditions of any game. Even if we perceive a loss was due to bad officiating, or if we feel our child was unduly singled out, we need to focus on the positives and not place blame. It’s possible a bad decision by a referee could affect the outcome of a match, but in general the give and take of officiating simply spreads out the frustration to both sides. Call it tough luck when a ruling goes against your team or your child rather than calling out the person rendering the decision. We need to remember that our amateur players are being officiated by amateur referees. They may get a small stipend for their efforts, but the reality is that they do it for the love of the game, just as our kids play for their own love. Teach our children to respect the referees, even if they believe they are incompetent. Without them, the game could degenerate into a free-for-all, with a lot more brawls and injuries. If you must, call them a necessary evil, but one that should be valued for maintaining order. Next time you feel the urge to yell out at an umpire or a referee, think about who’s around listening and how your comments will affect the way they regard the authority of an official.
We won’t prevent all violent contact with referees. The nature of the job means that half the people will love them and half will hate them at every competition, and occasionally that hate will boil over into physicality. However, we can hopefully reduce some of the acting out by practicing restraint and teaching our kids to have it as well. When pro players know that if they attack a ref they will most likely lose their place on any team for life, they have learned to control their rage. If kids know the adults won’t tolerate any physical, even aggressive verbal, retaliation, they may also learn to curb their impulsive behaviors. Before more children become YouTube sensations for the wrong reasons we need to step in and give them both guidance and firm limits on which they can base their responses.