LIGONIER – Raise your hand if you have ever heard or said something close to the following, “You are horrible!”
Immediately, the knee-jerk reaction is likely to pause and wonder why say such a thing. It’s common to think such a phrase isn’t kind or a proper statement to make to another individual. Now place yourself in a gymnasium surrounded by 1,500 of your neighbors, co-workers, friends and adversaries. And direct that statement to an official on the basketball court who missed a foul. Or an umpire who didn’t call strike three. Or a teenager who is trying to herd cats at a youth soccer game.
We’ve all said it, maybe out loud, maybe in our minds. For whatever psychological reason, those who officiate seem to get everything wrong. Coaches tell us every week on sports talk radio about calls that went against their team and the subsequent fortunes or misfortunes. Athletes are fined on a regular basis for behavior involving an official, and often celebrated for standing up to the zebras. The refs aren’t supposed to be part of the game! The best ones go unnoticed.
But what happens when ‘horrible’ or the innocence of “get some glasses!” or “what game are you watching?” reverts into something far worse? Or goes from verbal to physical? Who protects those who are supposed to uphold the integrity of the game everyone came to watch?
It doesn’t happen a lot, but it does tend to happen on occasion. The “you guys suck!”, which was yelled at the officiating crew Tuesday night from the stands at the West Noble Girls Basketball Sectional, is inappropriate. But in some cases, behavior towards an official can get physical and sometimes violent.
Nothing spilled onto the court Tuesday, but violence towards officials has happened across the country. And a proposal by Indiana Senator Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, is intended to increase the penalty of battery against an umpire, referee or certified athletic official to take on the same level felony as hitting a public safety official. The current penalty is a Class B misdemeanor for battery, but the language of the proposed Senate Bill SB-134, which the IHSAA is considering, would up the penalty to a Level 6 felony.
But will a rise in penalty really change the minds of irate fans or coaches?
“Whether it’s a misdemeanor or a felony, it’s not going to change much,” stated Lance Grubbs, a retired police officer and a veteran of over 40 years of officiating experience. “People are going to act like that regardless. Sometimes, there’s just going to be idiots in the stands that can’t control themselves.
“The proposal doesn’t change how we do things at all as officials. Only a couple of situations in all my years did things get out of hand. One of those, a game I did between North Judson and Knox, those guys were looking for trouble. There’s always vocal threats, but no one I was ever worried about.”
Grubbs, among his many duties in the officiating world, also served as an official observer in baseball, softball and basketball. He noted the high school scenes weren’t the ones he would worry about, it’s the youth leagues and the industrial and adult leagues that officials are generally in more danger.
“At high school games, you have athletic directors and police officers on site,” added Grubbs. “Especially at big games. But those games on a Tuesday night, the young umps are cutting their teeth and have no protection.”
Eric Coburn, who is also a retired police officer and is in his 32nd year as a state level basketball official, noted he has never had anyone physically harm him, but has had fans physically removed from games.
“I’ve asked on two occasions if they wanted to watch the game or sit in their car and listen to the game on the radio,” said Coburn, who also felt the language of the proposal left it open to interpretation as to who and how much is protected. “We are independent contractors. How exactly does this fully protect us? Obviously there is good intent, but I would need to hear more about it.”
One area athletic director took notice of the proposal and decided to make his own decree to his fanbase. Mason McIntyre of Triton has had his share of conversations with fans about behavior, and while he hasn’t had to shepherd out a continuous flow of fans, he’s tired of it getting to a tipping point.
In a mass mail to the entire Triton email database, McIntyre put it out there loud and clear. In an excerpt, McIntyre said last Friday, “…It’s a sad day that these kinds of bills must be proposed, and I would encourage all Triton fans to think before we speak/react at our athletic events.
“More and more, I hear Triton fans yelling at the officials and I scratch my head and wonder why. By no means do I think officials are perfect, but I do think that they come to our gyms and fields of play each night with the intent of doing their best. Will they make mistakes, certainly. But is it grounds for yelling and screaming at them? Definitely not! So Triton fans, let’s take the time to think before we speak (or yell) and determine if our words will be positive, and helpful to the educational environment of interscholastic athletics. If you’re sitting next to someone who constantly yells at the officials, please help us remind them that it isn’t needed at these events. Let’s let the players play, the coaches coach, and the officials officiate!”
Someone who has a view from all three sides of the spectrum is Trent Beer. The Wawasee Middle School teacher has officiated multiple sports for over 20 years up through college level, is the head coach of the Wawasee High School JV girls basketball team, is an official assignor and is surrounded by family and friends in the coaching industry. Beer mentioned officials are often in a no-win situation when it comes to opinion, but it’s part of the understanding. A bill won’t change that dynamic.
“You know when you take this job, whether it’s reffing or coaching, there is always going to be criticism,” Beer said. “It’s sad to say really the abuse is worse as you go down. The youth leagues are where they really need to get things cleaned up. If I do a college basketball game, the fans are generally more educated on rules. It’s not the same at the youth level. It’s usually ignorance, parents thinking they know the rules. And most times when you explain it to them, they have no idea. Or they don’t want to know. They’re just yelling to yell.”
In this great time in the state of Indiana where the beloved ‘Hoosier Hysteria’ is kicking off with the high school state tournaments in girls basketball, but also the wrestling and swimming tournaments and winter sports as a whole coming to a crescendo, emotions are amped up. The lady yelling at the ref Tuesday night saw her team lose, but left the gym and went home no better or worse for screaming at a referee she wouldn’t know if she passed him in the hall in street clothes.
Misdemeanor or felony, makes you wonder, is it really worth it?