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  "It's Not Just A Problem Anymore - It's An Epidemic"

To tackle one major issue staring at high school sports, we have to look to its root cause: ourselves.

By: Matt Harris
Published: 1/30/2018 2:51:31 AM

There are a few common things you’ll hear when entering a high school gymnasium to watch a basketball game: players talking, the coaches instructing, the sound of a ball bouncing, the piercing noise of an officials whistle, and the enthusiastic crowd taking it all in. 

It’s one of the most enjoyable times of the year for me. I love basketball and I love to see kids enjoying the game. Many, many adults love the game too. They love to see their kids enjoy the game. There are a lot of good fans out there. But, sometimes our pursuit of our kids’ happiness blinds us to our own actions – actions that we subconsciously deem as “support” for our kids.

Those actions, unfortunately, are hurting the future of our youth sports, not just basketball. And it’s driving away those who had a desire to be a part of the game. In fact, it’s become such a problem that the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has deemed it a “crisis”. 

Have you figured out what I’m referring to yet?

Nationwide and statewide, we have a shortage of referees and officials.

Yes, it has become a crisis. And it’s not going away.

There are many reasons as to why we are now in this situation. USA Today published an article last year giving five reasons as to why we are seeing fewer and fewer officials with our youth sports. Those reasons included:
-The aging of the current crop of officials.
-Travel and club teams that compete for officials’ time.
-A pay scale in need of a dramatic increase.
-A shift in time constraints on younger potential officiating candidates.

All of those reasons are valid. With any organization, younger talent has to eventually replace the older, more experienced workers. Those organizations also have to remain competitive with their pay scale or they could see that talent potentially leave to a different organization.

However, there is one more reason that the USA Today article listed – one that I want to focus on here. 

“The culture of abuse aimed at officials across all sports.”

There’s no denying it – it’s the primary culprit as to why many officials are leaving and not coming back. And can we blame them? Many of these officials work a full-time job, hop in their vehicle, drive to the game site, run up and down the court with kids half their age, taking verbal abuse from people they don’t even know for an hour and a half or more, only to collect a small paycheck and then head home.

That sounds fun, doesn’t it? If we were to give a recruiting pitch to prospective officials, we’d be sure to snag hundreds of people with that statement!

I have been around the game in various capacities in my life: as a player, as a fan, as a scorekeeper, as a public address announcer, as a broadcaster, as a coach, and as an official. I’ve seen the game from many different aspects, but one thing is clear – we have a MAJOR problem with fan sportsmanship on our hands.

Consider a few of these common phrases I’ve heard from fans that have been directed towards the officials:

“Hey moron, that was a horrible call!”

“You’re terrible! Don’t quit your day job a*****e!”

“Hey dough-head! Way to miss that one!”

“That’s b******t! How is that not a foul?!”

 “Hey (insert ref’s name), does your wife know you’re s******g us?!”

“You f*****g suck ref!”

Do I need to go on?

I’ve heard racial slurs and sexist commentary hurled towards officials. I've heard threatening words to officials and have seen a fan get into a verbal (and near physical) altercation with an official in the parking lot following a game. I’ve seen fans get so riled up that they’ve been escorted out of the building and even arrested during the game. We recently heard of a parent who threw a coat at an official while the game was going on.

Yep. It definitely should not be a problem to recruit officials.

The NFHS says that an average of only two of every 10 officials return for their third year of officiating. I’m honestly surprised that number isn’t lower, considering all of the things that new officials could be doing instead of being verbally abused at a youth sports contest for a small paycheck.

Conference play and tournament time seems to bring out the vitriol, too. When there is more on the line, there are more people want to send the blame on the officials for whatever happens on the court… and that’s regardless of how many times their team turned the ball over or how many free throws they missed or how many missed defensive assignments they had.

Unfortunately, too many fans believe that their paid admission to the sporting event is their green light to act however they want. Those who believe that are sadly mistaken.  If we acted like that in any other setting, we would be kicked out rather quickly. But, for some reason, it’s okay to do that in a sports setting?

What if we flipped the script? What if the official you were yelling at came into your work and just started yelling at you for what he perceives as you not doing your job correctly. This happens for an hour and a half. What would you do? You would probably call the cops and have that person escorted out and arrested for their behavior, right? How is that any different than you yelling at an official on a basketball court? It’s not.

I use the word “perceived” because fans see things differently than officials do. Would you believe me if I told you that most fans have never read the rule and case books for basketball? Would you believe me if I told you that most fans don’t understand a lot of the rules of basketball in general? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s pretty hard to officiate a game that you don’t know the rules to. A fan can “perceive” that an official is doing their job wrong when in reality the official is making the right calls. 

As a public address announcer, I often read a statement that goes something along the lines of “let the players play, the coaches coach, the officials officiate, and the spectators be positive”. Announcers around the state don’t say that just because they have to say it – they say it because the schools mean it. It’s not an invitation or merely a suggestion to act appropriately – it’s a mandate, one that we are not doing a good enough job of enforcing and one that spectators either don’t know about or don’t care about.

As one school administrator told me recently, “dealing with unruly fans is unfortunately what I have to spend a lot of time worrying about. It's not just a problem anymore, it's an epidemic.”

Have we let it go on for too long? Have we just accepted this as normal? Are we just apathetic to it because “I don’t want to be the person to have to confront that fan and tell them to stop or to leave”?

I believe that there is a key cause for this sort of fan behavior. It might not be the entire reason for it, but it certainly plays a major role: Fans believe they know the rules better than the officials. Why would they think that? Because they’ve watched the game on TV? Because their kid isn’t getting the star-treatment calls? Because they may have played college basketball somewhere and believe they know the game better?

Another reason? The evolution of social media. Anyone can sign up for an account, follow anyone they want, and – you guessed it – say anything they want. Now more than ever, people are more emboldened to say whatever they want and, for the most part, not fear any retribution. While that is all in the online realm, it seems to have translated over into real life situations. That’s not to say this wasn’t happening before social media came along, but it just seems to be happening more often now.

We have to realize that no one is perfect. That includes the coaches who coach, the players who play, the officials who officiate, and the fans who are fanatical. People make mistakes. But for some reason, fans hold officials to an insanely high standard that the fans themselves could never achieve. 

Officials hold themselves to high standards as well, by the way. Officials want to do the best job that they can – contrary to popular belief, they don’t "have it out" for your team. Officials work hard, study the rule and case books, go to camps and training sessions, and observe film where possible so they can improve in their jobs. Most officials like officiating! They also like to improve their skill set. Officials have to take national certification tests and score at least 70% in order to officiate junior varsity contests or lower and at least 80% to do varsity games. But most fans won’t see that or don’t know that, because most fans are either unaware or simply don’t care.

Fans should care though. The officiating issue isn’t going away unless we all take steps to address it and fix it. If the trend continues, there will be few officials willing to officiate youth sports, which carries over to middle school and high school. If there are fewer youth officials in the future, that means there will be fewer high school officials in the future. See where this leads?

It’s become so problematic that the NFHS has put out a full-on nationwide advertising campaign trying to get people to come out and learn to officiate. This isn’t just for basketball – it’s for all sports.

The reality is that in lower level contests, you’re going to have brand new officials covering those games. There’s no real way around it. Those new officials are on those games just so that games can get covered. When they’re covered, kids can then participate and play. Without them, nothing happens.

Now, here’s the thing: we can’t just assume that our neighbor or someone sitting next to us will take action. You have to take action as well. I have to take action. We ALL have to take action. It’s why I’m considering returning to officiate high school basketball again (I had to quit the first time around because of my job schedule). I’m just one drop in a very large bucket, but every little bit helps. Even if you don’t officiate, consider your actions at when you attend games and if your conduct makes you a good representative of your school and yourself. If you don’t actually attend the school, your conduct still reflects on the school whom you are cheering for. 

As well, for those of you who love to officiate from the stands, I encourage you to do this: take some basketball rules practice tests to see how much you really know. In fact, here’s a link to a bunch of basketball rules quizzes posted by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. Take those quizzes and see how you do! You’ll find one of two things in doing so:

1.You scored high enough that you can be certified to officiate games.
2.You scored low enough that you should never yell at a ref again. Ever.

It’s very easy to be an armchair official at games. Don’t be that person. You’re literally not helping anything by doing so. Unless you’ve worn the stripes, adorned the whistle, and officiated several games, you have no room to comment on the officiating in any setting – because you have no experience with it. And those who have officiated before normally won’t comment on it because they know that it isn’t easy.

Everything I’ve said may sound a little harsh, but the point I’m trying to make is that if we don’t change the way we behave and if we don’t step up to the plate for our youth, there are going to be a lot of disappointed kids in the future because of lack of officials. Since 1971-72, the number of students participating in high school athletics has doubled from four million to eight million across the nation. But officiating numbers have not kept up with the growth. The lack of growth in the officiating ranks is a problem. That problem comes from a culture of abuse directed towards officials. As stated earlier, it’s a crisis.

A crisis we created. A crisis we alone can fix.

It starts with you and I. 

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