Friday, 10 August 2018

Wisconsin Losing Its Stripes

There's probably never a wrong time to post this, but we're getting close to a number of sports kicking off their seasons at the high school and amateur levels so it's very topical that a report out of Wisconsin came out today regarding a referee shortage hitting the sport of football in that state. What should alarm everyone reading this is that it is happening in every sport - hockey, football, soccer, basketball - where officials are being abused by coaches, players, and, most notably, parents and fans that these young officials are quitting the job of officiating. In most cases, they quit for good, and that's not a great outlook for sports that require officials to keep the games going. In saying this, let's have a discussion once more about the treatment of officials since I'm an official over the summer.

Let's start with the report from WKOW Channel 27 in Wisconsin.
As stated in the report, "more than 70% of refs quit the job within the first few years. Jameson says the 2-3 year mark is typically when most hang up their whistles." That's a particularly damning statistic when you think that seven of every ten registered officials quits after two or three years due to the largest factor being abuse of officials. Wisconsin football was the subject of this study, but hockey isn't getting off easy on this page. If you're keeping up with your statistics, officials in hockey quit at an alarming rate as well.

According to a 2012 report from the the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine entitled Violence in Canadian Amateur Hockey: The Experience of Referees in Ontario, the study found that more than 90% of the 632 referees who responded to the survey said they were recipients of aggression and anger. Around 46% said that referees are threatened by physical violence. Hockey Canada has approximately 30,000 officials registered to officiate minor hockey games every year, and they state that approximately 10,000 fail to return every year. In perhaps the scariest and most tragic of incidents in the last few years, a soccer referee in the US was killed when he threatened to eject a player from an adult-league soccer match in suburban Detroit in 2014.

Abuse of officials is a far more common incident of abuse than one may think. Verbal abuse and physical abuse are seen at far greater instances than ever in the past, and it begs the question as to where we, as a society, began to lose our common decency to plummet towards this inexcusable behaviour?

Look, I understand that one may get caught up in the moment, but being in the moment also requires a sense of understanding that there are still lines that cannot be crossed. NHL players, for an incensed as they can be, understand they cannot scream vulgarities at an official or touch an official without some sort of retribution coming their way. They're literally playing for glory and a pay cheque; you, in the stands, are simply making someone's day or life a little more difficult with the barrage of insults being hurled at them. And why? Because they missed a slash on the opposite side of the rink that your eight year-old barely noticed?

I'll refer to Adam Proteau's words from The Hockey News on November 28, 2013 when he wrote,
Let me speak directly to these cretins for a moment: Look, I know you think you're sticking up for your kid or a child you coach when you unload two lungs-full of air on an official. But you’re not doing anybody a scintilla of good. You're embarrassing yourself and your child and you're damaging someone who is officiating not for money or glory, but because they love the sport. You're demonstrating to everyone within earshot of your obscene squeals that the best way to address an injustice isn't by overcoming it, but by folding your arms across your chest, sticking out your bottom lip and reprehensibly shifting the blame to a person who doesn't play for either team. In short, you're hurting hockey much more than an official ever could. So either rein in your pathetic ranting or stand outside the arena and ask one of the other parents to provide Twitter play-by-play of the game you're obviously not emotionally mature enough to watch in person.

If the tone of this message seems overly harsh to you, I don't care. We've tried to go the polite route on this for years now. We've tried to connect with you by posting bluntly stated rules about your unacceptable behavior. But it's still continuing and the reasonable among us have to look at new, more effective methods to control braying and bleating from insensitive oafs whose selfishness knows no bounds. Some minor hockey associations already have parental codes of conduct as part of their programs. But if that's not enough, it's time for guerrilla war tactics on people who won't change their ways. For instance, maybe sane hockey parents have to start videotaping abusive fans and posting them online in social media forums for their employers to see. Maybe if more people faced repercussions beyond the hockey world for their actions within it, we'd force them to wise up, grow up and shut up. The choice for amateur hockey is clear: demand more restraint from all participants, or face a future where the number of officials shrinks every year until nobody wants to call a game and subject themselves to this garbage. Only by getting rude and in the face of people who get their kicks from being rude and in the faces of referees and linesmen will we do the right thing and push them out of a world they don't deserve to participate in. I'd rather have zebras making mistakes the ice than a herd of jackasses letting their mouths run amok in the stands.
I stand with Adam. I'm not suggesting to cause a confrontation with those who are overtly rude towards officials, but, as Adam suggested, it may be time to start making examples out of these people as the type of fan that your hockey organization doesn't need. Officials are there to help players get better by enforcing the rules and to keep games moving smoothly by ensuring that incidents don't spiral out of control. Parents and fans who launch a barrage of insults and verbal diarrhoea towards officials are counteracting both of those goals.

As an umpire, I have made mistakes. I will fully admit I'm not perfect, and to err is to be human. If I blow a call, so be it. I'm pretty sure you're not batting 1.000 all season, so let's compare success rates if you like. I guarantee I make wrong calls far less than players hit into outs. At the very worst, I have made umpiring calls based on not knowing a specific rule as well as I should have, and that's on me to be better an umpire. I am fully aware I'm not an encyclopedia of rules, but I'll do my best to mitigate the negative impacts that may be caused by my lack of knowing every line of the rule book. The one thing I don't need help with is your "interpretation" of the rules whether I make a bad call or I make an error on a rule. You're welcome to have a discussion with me as to what I saw or my understand and/or interpretation of the rules, but yelling like a buffoon about the mistake I made from the bench or stands will only result in my patience being worn thin.

I've taken my fair share of heckles, and I certainly can understand why some of these younger officials walk away from the game based on some of the stuff I've heard. Being on the other side of the coin and wearing the official's uniform, it has become very apparent that officials are doing the best they can and they rarely, if ever, are involved in the deciding plays that result in wins and losses. If you believe the officials are out to get you or your team, it might be time to look at why your team is under the microscope with the officials. Rarely do officials care one way or another who wins as long as everyone has fun and the rules are being followed. If you decide to make a mockery of the game, the other team, or the officials, chances are that your team will earn that special attention through reputation and word-of-mouth among the officials so that whatever mockery has happened doesn't occur again.

I'll say it here and now: I stand with any and all young officials across the sports spectrum. I will not let fans, parents, coaches, nor players disrespect you while I'm in attendance nor will I stand for third-party accounts of abuse of officials when I hear about them. Please speak to whomever oversees the sport in which you officiate if you feel like someone crossed the line between cheerful banter and hurtful comments. You never deserve the abuse received while doing your job in keeping the games going. It's important to remember that without you, there are no games. And we clearly need more passionate, good people like yourself than the vile, disgusting people who feel it's easier to chirp from the sidelines than it is to don the stripes.

Fans, parents, coaches, and players, I urge you to remember that these young officials want to keep the games going so that the next generation of players can possibly be the next wave of great officials. I was inspired by a couple of great umpires who took the time to talk with me about umpiring and why it's important as a player to get the perspective from their side of the game. I fully understand that perspective now, and I don't let a bad call or a wrong call affect me nearly as much as it did in my younger days. I encourage you and your kids to do the same when it comes to the officials in your chosen sport or your kids' chosen sports. These are good people doing a tough, thankless job, so even just a thank-you goes a long way for officials and their work.

In my position, I get to chat with catchers and pitchers most often, so I do develop some chemistry with the battery just as they understand why my strike zone is what it is. What I find more rewarding anything else is the conversations that don't pertain to baseball: how was your weekend, what's new, how's the season going. I respect the trust levels that I have with some catchers who discuss everything under the sun with me as they get ready between innings, and I generally enjoy that they know that they have my trust when it comes to them making jokes and comments in jest with me. While I would never tread on that trust to sway my decisions to affect an outcome, I truly believe they understand that I will be as fair and impartial as possible. All it took for these relationships to be built is a little conversation.

We're all human, folks. No one will remember that call that I screwed up in the bottom of the third inning on July 24, but people will remember that guy who went ballistic because a ball that was pitched for strike-one was a hair outside. It's just a game, folks. No one is going to the big leagues, and your child, as talented as he or she is, has a less-than-one-percent chance of making the millionaire pro athlete ranks. What will lower that percentage even more is having a parent who is disrespectful to officials because no college, university, junior, or professional team tolerates that kind of behaviour from its fans.

I'll refer you to this PSA put out by Hockey Canada as I end this article. Keep this in mind the next time you feel the urge to explode into a rage of obscenities and insults because the person in stripes did something you didn't like.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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