OK, so you want to yell at a referee or umpire. Go for it. But before you do, know there is a right and wrong way to do it.
I recently wrote a story on how Fort Collins-based Triple Crown has stiffened its policy on ejecting fans who behave badly as a way to combat the growing shortage of sports officials and to improve the experience of more rational fans.
Many people read the story because many people are subjected to these outbursts by adults on a daily basis — twice as much on tournament weekends. Many people wanted to know what they could do to help improve the fan experience.
Full disclosure: I officiate high school basketball and high school and college softball, and I used to umpire youth and high school baseball. That makes me an authority on fan behavior. I got into officiating because as a youth coach and parent I had seen my share of bad officials and vowed I could do better.
But before you roll your eyes and think because I’m a sports official this column will defend all sports officials, you’re wrong. As fans often point out, sports officials make mistakes, which we do. So do players, coaches and fans. Sports officials are held to a higher standard, which is justified given we are the men and women in the middle who administer the rules to allow two teams pulling in opposite directions to have a fair contest.
What are dos and don’ts of yelling at officials?
- No swearing: Swearing is a red flag and will be dealt with quickly and harshly.
- Never make it personal: Yell, “That call stinks” or “That call was horrible.” Don’t yell, “You stink” or “You are horrible.” Make it personal and the chances of a coach or player being warned, given a technical or ejected or a fan being ejected increases dramatically.
- Beep, don’t lay on the horn: Beeping of the horn is OK. Laying on the horn, not so much. Disagreeing with a close play is spontaneous. Believe me, if it’s a close play, the official also realizes that. We expect some sort of quick response. But constant complaining or questioning annoys officials and fans around you. Pick your battles on when to complain and make it short and sweet.
Why does my kid get such bad officials?
Here’s how it works. Generally, the least experienced teams receive the least experienced officials. As the skill level of the players increases, so does the competency of the officiating.
If your child is playing recreational ball, you will likely get inexperienced officials, which usually but not always means younger officials. Like your child is learning how to play the game, these officials are learning how to correctly call the game. Expect more mistakes from the players and the officials and live with it.
Sometimes veteran officials will work games with less experienced officials to help them through the process. Cut them some slack.
Is there really a shortage of officials, and if so, why?
Bad fan, coach and player behavior is a major reason why there is only a 20 percent retention of officials past their third year. This has in part caused a shortage of officials because retiring officials aren’t being replaced in great enough numbers by younger officials staying and moving up in officiating
This impacts officiating at your games in two ways. One, lower skilled officials who have weathered those first three years receive higher level game assignments they might not be able to handle. Two, your games might be officiated by less than the usual number of officials. For instance, some softball and baseball games now in some areas of the country use one umpire.
How do we stop the problem of bad fan behavior?
- First line of defense should be organizations and coaches setting and enforcing rules before the season on how to behave at games. This should include fans not yelling at players, coaches, other fans or umpires — yours or anyone’s.
- If a fan yells at players, coaches or umpires during a game, parents should discreetly remind the person about the above rule and ask them to please discontinue the behavior. If that doesn’t work, get the coach involved.
- From an official’s perspective, the process usually goes something like ignore the comment, unless it crosses the line mentioned in don’ts. Next is acknowledge and address the cause of the issue with the coach or player. If it is a fan, the official might get the attention of the tournament onsite staff and have them monitor the fan.
- If bad behavior continues, the official might issue a verbal warning to a coach. If it continues, the official will assess a technical or restrict the coach or player to the dugout. The final step is ejection of the fan, team representative or player.
Using this process gives the offending person plenty of time to change their behavior.
Sometimes the officials are bad, so what happens if they make bad calls?
Just like a small percentage of fans behave badly, a small percentage of officials just aren’t good enough and need to either improve or stop officiating.
But just like with an ejection, there is a process to deal with this.
As a fan, if you feel an umpire has misapplied a rule(s) or exhibited poor behavior, address your concerns with your coach. Don’t berate the official after the game as they are leaving. Doing so is definitely grounds for you being ejected.
If the coach feels the complaints are warranted, he/she can direct the complaints to the assignor of the game officials or tournament director. That person gathers information about the play or behavior of the official then addresses it with the official. This usually includes an explanation of how to better handle a situation to help the official grow.
If the official receives a number of complaints about misapplied rules and/or poor game management skills, assignors can downgrade the official or remove the person from their officiating list.
In virtually every sport, officials have a rating that corresponds with the level of play they are competent to officiate. That rating fluctuates with their performances.
The vast majority of officials are trying to work their way up, so their rating is not taken lightly.
Bottom line is to display some common decency and when that doesn’t happen be bold enough to address the issue whether you are a fan, coach or official. Not doing so condones the actions of the offenders, perpetuates the problem and will increase the growing sports officials shortage issue, which will impact your and your kids’ experience.