Refs say culture of abuse has to change: 'We are targets'

John Jay-Cross River Athletic (N.Y.) Director Chris McCarthy spends the majority of his time at his school’s sporting events watching the parents in the stands rather than the athletes in the game.

There have been a number of occasions when McCarthy has had to escort officials to their cars after unruly fans created an unsafe environment following high school contests.

“I’ve been at football games that were haywire at the end,” McCarthy said. “I’ve had parents from other schools bee-lining for officials, and myself and police intervening. That has happened.”

McCarthy’s experience is not unique.

On this past Feb. 18 alone, police presence was required at more than half a dozen boys and girls basketball playoff games, including a girls game between Peekskill and Tappan Zee where a brawl broke out among Peekskill players afterward.

Abuse is among the top reasons why New York public high school sports are struggling to fulfill their officiating responsibilities. From violent confrontations to a steady stream of verbal abuse, current and former officials throughout the Hudson Valley have stories to tell.

MORE: Shrinking pay, age, abuse among factors driving referees away in public high schools

Officials across Rockland, Westchester, Dutchess, Putnam and Ulster counties regularly plan exit routes from venues prior to contests in case such an incident breaks out. And while the money could be seen as a strong incentive, many feel it is not nearly worth the risk.

One Rockland wrestling official said a parent once came out of the stands and threatened to kill him.

“I needed to ask for a school official to remove the parent from the school before the match proceeded,” said the referee, who refused to be identified or name the school district because he is still an active official in the area. “A week later I was assigned the school that the parent who threatened me was from. As I entered the gym this parent was sitting right in front of the bleachers like nothing ever happened. I asked the (athletic director) why he was still allowed to attend school events after he threatened my life at the previous match (and) embarrassed your school — what example are you setting (if) no one is held accountable for their actions?”

Scott Caruthers, a longtime Section 1 and 9 referee, said he was assaulted by a player while working a men’s recreational league soccer game about 10 years ago. Angered by a call against him, the player attacked Caruthers. “As I turned away from him, he gave me a hard two-handed shove that knocked me to the ground,” said Caruthers, who ended the game immediately.

Caruthers was uninjured, but has refused to officiate that venue since.

The problem exists in athletics across the country, and has been building for decades.

Barry Mano, founder and president of the 22,000-member National Association of Sports Officials, said 70 percent of his membership works high school games. In 2001, the organization released a report titled “How to Get & Keep Officials” shedding light on a shortage of officials, but 16 years later the problem persists.

Mano said there are a “basket of reasons” for it, but a major factor is the “remarkable bad behavior” of fans and a culture of that being thought of as acceptable.

“People are saying, ‘Why am I going out and doing this?’ ” he said, referring to officials. “We have got to control the way sports officials are treated and respected. We have to turn the train around and they have to be fully valued and respected.”

‘We are targets’

Phil McGovern, who referees four different sports at the youth and varsity levels, once had a parent put his hands on the hood of his car to prevent him from leaving until police had to be called.

It was after a fifth-grade boys basketball game.

“When we walk into a gym, or an arena, or a field, right away, we are targets,” McGovern said. “As soon as we blow the whistle, 50 percent of the people are going to disagree with what we say — right off the bat.”

“For that game, I made $50,” he added. “Is it worth this stress for $50? I don’t know.”

To ensure safety, Terry Walsh, the interpreter of the Local Boys Basketball Officials Board 114 in Dutchess County, said officials will make a pregame plan “to prevent abuse at games and venues known for their over-the-top behavior.”

“​We’ll map it out with security and figure out how many people we’ll need in a certain spot, who the troublesome parents are and where they might be, and what we need to look out for,” Walsh said.

Longtime Mount Vernon boys basketball head coach Bob Cimmino said he believes officiating used to a “dedicated profession,” but that it has changed dramatically.

“I think it’s really difficult now,” said Cimmino. “With social media, I think everybody is looking over your shoulder and I really feel bad for the referees nowadays.”

Rick Yarmy, a hockey official who has done NHL preseason games to high school events, gave up officiating about five years ago for a variety of reasons. He recalled ejecting a player from Pleasantville High School for hitting an opposing player from behind — knocking his head into the boards — and having the Pleasantville player’s father storm into the referees’ locker room after the game.

“He went absolutely berserk,” Yarmy said. The Pleasantville coach intervened by grabbing the parent’s jacket and pressing up against him, Yarmy said. “That was a real dangerous situation. We were in a small, enclosed room with an enraged parent.”

Most of the incidents officials cite are verbal abuse, which can range from traditional jabs to obscenity-laced tirades.

One Ursuline parent repeatedly yelled, “Bull—-” at officials during a girls basketball home game against Ossining on Dec. 22, stopping only after being threatened with ejection. On Feb. 1, officials ejected an adult fan from Albertus Magnus High School during a girls basketball game at Ossining after he accused the referee of being “afraid” to give Pride head coach Dan Ricci a technical foul. 

Pace Serwatien, head of the 89-member Rockland County Umpires Association, said “thick skin” is needed to be an official.

“No one wants us there. They have to put up with us. They have to pay us,” Serwatien said. “The general perception is we’re just hired help you can say whatever to.”

‘You expect stupidity’

Across the nation, there are extreme examples of abusing officials. Two years ago at a Texas High School football game two players allegedly deliberately collided into a linesman. Dr. Shaun Tyrance, a sports psychologist based in Charlotte, N.C., said he has witnessed players and coaches attack referees during AAU basketball games and that the verbal and physical abuse officials take is “an actual problem.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t think this is going to go away,” Tyrance said. “I think it’s going to be hard to find people that want to take that type of abuse.”

The abuse can be worse for female officials, who are often the target of sexist comments from disgruntled fans.

“I’ve had a mix and heard everything. Sometimes it’s hurtful, and maybe that’s why some women don’t stick with it,” said Suzanne Gunn, 52, a Washingtonville-based official who has been calling soccer, basketball and lacrosse games for 14 years. “You just have to try your best to tune it out. I feel we’re part of a team as officials. Male or female, we all wear the stripes together.”

In 19 years as Horace Greeley athletic director, Pete Kuczma said he has had to escort officials to their cars and deal with volatile fans. He said he has a shorter leash with parents than students because they should be setting a better example.

“High school kids are high school kids. You expect stupidity. But not from parents,” he said. “Parents learn to do this as little kids growing up. Parents feel entitled to yell at officials when they make a bad call … One parent I blackballed from the school for causing such a disruption.”

Tyler Witte is less than a year removed from high school, but the 18-year-old Pearl River graduate has been umpiring baseball games since he was a pre-teen. Witte, who elected to forgo attending college and enrolled in a Florida-based umpiring school, said umpires are taught various techniques to deal with unruly coaches.

Witte said the key for officials and umpires is to not take insults to heart.

“They are yelling at your uniform, not at you,” he said. “If more umpires thought of it that way, there would be less incidents. If I took everything people said to me personally, I would have quit a long time ago.”

But some officials will not allow themselves to be verbal punching bags.

Howie Green, chairman of the Putnam County Basketball Officials and past president of the Westchester County Basketball Officials Association, said he’s thrown out “hundreds” of fans, parents, coaches, and school administrators over his 47-year career in officiating.

“I tell them, ‘You want my whistle? I’ll go in the stands and cheer,’ ” Green said. “That shuts them up a bit.”

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