It’s hard out there for a ref. Nationally and locally, officials for all manner of sports are often hard to come by, and if we’re looking for the reason, mirrors are easy to find. A culture of belittling sports officials has taken root not only at the professional and college levels, but also in high school and youth sports. It’s a sad statement about what we value, and it teaches our children the wrong lessons about why we participate in activity and competition. The good news: It’s easy enough for us to change, but we have to make that choice ourselves.
A flurry of incidents in recent years illustrates what can happen when respect for referees, umpires, linesmen and other officials erodes: A crucial high school soccer match called off after a coach berated the officiating crew. A hockey linesman shoved and a referee elbowed in the face when a player lost his cool during the state hockey tournament. If anything, the problem is more pronounced nationwide. A 2017 survey by the National Association of Sports Officials found that nearly half of all officials say “they have felt unsafe due to administrator, coach, player or spectator behavior.”
It’s not hard to draw a line between increasing polarization eroding respect in civic life and politics and the extension of that behavior to the field of play. As we have increasingly considered those who disagree with us less worthy of our respect, that behavior has spilled into sporting events. It’s a time-honored tradition, for example, to boo referees in good humor as they make their entrance into the hockey rink before a game. But throwing garbage and empty beer cups onto the ice when a referee makes an unpopular call is beyond the pale.
The biggest losers when we abuse officials are our own children. By creating a hostile atmosphere that drives officials away from the profession, the pool of striped shirts gets smaller and often less talented. That hamstrings leagues’ abilities to schedule games, which means less opportunity to compete. Worse, it teaches children the wrong lessons about what is valuable in sports. Browbeating an umpire to try to swing calls in your team’s favor teaches that gamesmanship is not only permissible but desirable. Focusing on the officials’ supposed misdeeds deflects from our own responsibility to teach kids to play hard and clean, and to own up to their mistakes.
At their best, sports teach us the lessons we need to succeed at life, reinforcing the importance of skill, practice and a strong work ethic. None of that is promoted by haranguing those working to make sure the game’s rules are applied fairly.
Are officials infallible? Certainly not. Do they make mistakes? Absolutely. We all do. We’re human. The better part of human nature is to recognize that fact and understand that there are greater lessons being imparted and more important principles being taught in every game. Getting our way on one blown call isn’t worth losing sight of that.