The News & Observer’s high school sports panel of five community sports editors, headed up by J. Mike Blake, will be taking on different questions each week. In this week’s writers’ roundtable, the group discusses an alarming trend of it being harder to find high school referees.
The N&O panel features:
▪ D. Clay Best (Smithfield Herald, Clayton News-Star, Garner-Cleveland Record).
▪ J. Mike Blake (The Cary News and Southwest Wake News).
▪ Aaron Moody (Eastern Wake News).
▪ Jessika Morgan (Midtown Raleigh News and North Raleigh News).
▪ W.E. Warnock (Chapel Hill News and The Durham News).
Q: What’s the worst referee abuse you’ve seen at a game?
Best: I do my best to forget these, but there’s been all sorts of salty for even sailor standards directed at officials as they exit and enter the playing court/field. Fortunately, I’ve never seen anything get physical.
Blake: A woman stood over a clock operator and berated her for “cheating” because 12 seconds didn’t run off in a tied overtime basketball game. It was a mistake, no doubt, but neither team scored and they went into another overtime. The clock person was made out as a villain, but there was zero impact on the game.
Moody: These all kind of run together for me, probably because when I see it, my first thought is to give as little attention as possible to what is commonly an emotional meltdown on the part of a fan. Two occasions stand out in which adult hecklers got direct enough with a ref, and for long enough, that athletic directors showed them the door.
Morgan: I can’t pinpoint the worst I’ve seen, but I think the fans really show out the most during basketball games. Everything is so close and heated. I think fans who are going to be abusive find a rush in being able to yell down officials without any consequences, well, most times.
Warnock: At a postseason soccer game a few years back, one official needed to be escorted off the field by police. He was surrounded on the field by about 25 irate fans after a disputed call near the center circle. Things turned really ugly when the official, of Hispanic origins himself, said to one fuming parent: “Why don’t you go back to Mexico?”
Q: How did we get here? What’s the origin?
Best: Somehow it’s become “normal” to some people to act this way at a game. They’ve seen someone else do it and that person not be shunned, asked to be quiet or asked to leave the game venue, so evidently, it’s an OK practice in said observers’ eyes. And next time that fan who heard somebody else do it at last week’s game, that fan thinks for some reason that there needs to be an obnoxious, loud, running one-way dialogue directed at the game officials.
Blake: My guess is misplaced care. Parents want what’s best for their child, but the referee is no longer looked at as part of the game, but a force your son or daughter will have to “overcome.” Last week I attended the first soccer game where I didn’t hear someone yell at the ref from across the field. It was a laid-back atmosphere, and that’s rare to get that many parents together for a game and not have someone on edge.
Moody: That’s a million-dollar question. I go back to emotions, the lost understanding that while family members of the athletes are truly their No. 1 fans, that we are still talking about a game, a sport, in high school. What is not a game is the job the officials are being paid to execute.
Morgan: I think because we’re in the age of the instant replay, fans want everything immediately: a call overturned, an instant explanation, just something. There’s a growing lack of respect and trust in officials from this type of abusive fan. And somehow, because a fan may have played football in high school – maybe even college – that person thinks they know more than the officials. Refs do make mistakes but are held to a higher standard of knowledge than your average fan.
Warnock: It’s just my opinion, but officiating has deteriorated. The NCHSAA and booking agents can’t keep up with the demand for officials that exploded in the past 25 years. In the 1970s, you only needed officials for football, basketball and baseball; track meets were run by volunteers. Now North Carolina has more than four times as many high schools as then, and even 1A schools offer everything from soccer to lacrosse. North Carolina needs hundreds more quality officials. Also, as the population has grown, so has people’s sense of anonymity, making them more likely to feel simultaneously unempowered and emboldened to be outspoken.
Q: What can schools do to make a better environment and deter abusive fans?
Best: Have every Johnston County high school that has announcers at any game make a general statement about fan behavior expectations before the game begins. (Garner does this too.) It’s simple, but it helps.
Blake: I have never seen an adult fan asked to calm down or leave a game by an administrator; how about we start there? I’ve seen kids get removed for saying foul and sometimes vicious stuff, but nobody holds the over-the-top grown folks accountable. No, “baseball dad” won’t be happy about it and he might make a scene. But the embarrassment of being removed from his son’s game will linger and it’ll have a chilling effect on others. Even if they do not curse, shouldn’t they get a warning from someone to let them know they crossed the line?
The same way a ref gets a testy game under control, an admin can do the same.
Sometimes a positive voice on the PA who says something like “Let’s give it up for both teams out there playing hard!” makes all the difference and cuts through the tension. If your PA guy holds the mic to his side and yells at the official as the ref tries asking for more time on the clock, you might have the wrong guy.
Moody: Learning by example tends to work for adults, too. School officials need to react quickly and consistently to abusive fans. Doing so sends a message to others and creates an atmosphere where it is well known such behavior will not be tolerated, and will be less likely to occur.
Morgan: There need to be sure repercussions when a fan gets too far out of line. I’ve seen a home basketball team threatened with a technical because of a belligerent fan, and I’ve seen a fan get kicked out of the gym for questioning every single call a ref made. Stuff like this needs to become more normal.
Warnock: PA announcements about sportsmanship help, a little. The presence of public safety officers helps, too. I could suggest playing accordion music during timeouts, which might bemuse the hoi polloi and lull them into placidity. But no outside agency will solve the problem; a change must come from within the hearts of spectators.
Q: What advice do you have for fans who find it hard not to chide officials?
Best: The next time obnoxious fan goes to a game with the idea in his head that he’s not that obnoxious, it’s time to turn on the recorder on your phone for a while and listen to what’s coming out of your mouth at a later time. I predict it will be a humbling experience.
Or simply direct those words you must let escape your body in a positive direction at your team or specific players on your team. Maybe Jimmy/Jackie’s family can’t be at the game that afternoon, but Jimmy/Jackie just made a heck of a play. Let them hear it from you. Trust me, everybody in attendance will get more out of that than they would you counting off a three-second call in a basketball game.
Blake: Never utter the words “Call it both ways, ref!” ever again. They know what their job is. It just makes you, the fan, look bad. Once I heard a fan said this to an official over an out-of-bounds call. How can you not call out-of-bounds both ways? Are you scared the other team will get away with dribbling the ball behind the bench?
Think about how many times you’ve yelled in support of a player you’re not related to and times it by two. Do you cheer more loudly for a foul on the other team or when your team scores (girls lacrosse is particularly bad about this)? Do you cheer only after something good happens or do you let players know you’re behind them when things aren’t going well too?
Moody: Before you get to the gate, pinch yourself to remind yourself of a time when you were “that guy/gal.” Few things can make people check themselves more than the prospect of becoming a spectacle. Fans don’t really want to bring that kind of embarrassing attention on themselves, not even those who have a history of ending up being “that guy.”
Morgan: Calm down: There are more important things. Especially if you’re a parent, think about the example of respect and realizing people make mistakes that you’re setting for your child. Just be a nice person: This is high school sports.