WARSAW – Fan behavior.
It’s not a new topic. It’s not a fun topic. It’s now becoming a serious topic.
Just a few days ago, my Twitter feed was littered with retweets and thoughts about the little league fight in Lakewood, Colorado. A bunch of grown adults fighting about what was reported as disagreement with a 13-year-old umpire’s decision making. My first thought, honestly, was why is a 13-year-old the umpire, but soon rewound the 36-second video clip to watch adults fight on a little league diamond while moms in the background are ushering away seven-year-olds from the mosh pit.
I originally decided on this column a few weeks ago after going to a couple area developmental level games. I don’t typically sit ‘with the people’ when I work largely because of the photography angle of my duties for IFN, but was reminded why at a couple of these games, listening to parents trying to upstage coaches at T-ball. “Hey, run up and get the ball!” he said, even though the coach asked said player to not steal the ninth grounder in a row from the gaggle of charging T-Ballers. “Scoot up in the box!” he said to his daughter in the batter’s box at a softball game, daughter now fixated on what dad is saying in the stands and not hearing what coach is saying. The girl later struck out. “Go left. Oh my God, what are you doing?” he said, wanting basketball player to go his way and not the way coach asked as they were trying to learn new plays while the defense was also figuring out the plays. Among the next few possessions were travels and turnovers.
But also, I watched a parent from a very large 4-A school from eastern Indianapolis come out of the stands not once, not twice, but on three separate occasions during the IHSWCA Wrestling Team State. The athletic director, a venue worker and one of the other parents had to get this guy all three times because the official wasn’t meeting his personal needs. And, yes, the wrestler on the mat was reacting to it every time in a negative way. Same tournament, dad for winning team near Kokomo came out to the mat’s edge on multiple occasions to voice his displeasure, so much so the head coach had to walk off his own mat during the run of play and physically remove his own fan from the area to save a potential penalty point. Profanities exchanged and all.
It happens, and I totally get it. I’ve yelled at the TV like a crazy person. I’ve been that coach in the dugout who didn’t get the strike my pitcher purportedly deserved. I’ve been the shortstop who area swiped second base to turn a double play and didn’t get the call and my first gripe was with blue. I’ve also been the official in soccer, standing on what we called the “loud side” which was the assistant referee that ran up and down the touch line in front of the folding chairs and soccer experts who got their credentials from Sir Alex Ferguson himself.
But what are we teaching the kids? That it’s OK to go ballistic when we don’t get our way?
I heard about fans threatening to fight coaches after football and basketball games this past year, and their spouses getting spit on. I heard about how athletic directors were going to crack down on fan behavior, then watched them giggle when their cheer blocks mocked refs and coaches. Or heard students chastise a referee’s physical appearance because he wasn’t benefitting their team, and the ref has cancer that leads to his appearance. In this case, the athletic director did hear it, and so did the assistant AD, and both let the kids have it.
In that regard, I did see an athletic director turn and verbally scorn some chafed fans who were upset about unified football and how one team wasn’t “playing within the rules” and were “cheating”. I did see a baseball coach turn and rip his fans who were taunting the other team. “We don’t do that here,” were among the pointed words he had for the fans who weren’t getting their trophy. I did see a mom, don’t remember the team or sport, who grabbed her husband by the belt loop and told him to knock it off when he felt the need to stand and waive his arms and swear at a game.
My uncle, Frank Deak, was a very successful baseball coach in Michigan, went on to earn Hall of Fame status along the way, and once coached some Hall of Famer named John Smoltz. After I started coaching high school softball, I asked him for advice and one thing he told me is to be professional every day, because the kids are looking up to you. And you never know who is watching.
I think about the Lakewood video, and the students ripping the ref’s physical appearance, and the parents at that wrestling tournament in Fort Wayne. And I think, what are we doing? The IHSAA is begging people with weekly press releases and tweets to become officials. I think about sitting in a hospitality room last January listening to officials laugh about getting yelled at, then immediately saying that’s why young people don’t want to be refs. Imagine sitting at your volunteer job and getting lambasted for error after error. Imagine volunteering to be a T-Ball coach because your son or daughter is five and wants to have fun, and hearing (well-intending) patrons yelling from their camping chairs. Imagine being a parent and grown adults are standing and taunting your child.
So, again, I ask. What are we doing here? Maybe your son or daughter plays with a John Smoltz, or maybe you think your kid is a John Smoltz or Zion Williamson or Lionel Messi or Peyton Manning. And that’s great. But maybe your child just wants to have fun with their friends and not feel like they have to get a scholarship to Notre Dame or Alabama or go to an international sports academy to earn your seal of approval.
But it’s really hard to have fun running for your life while mom and dad are fighting on your infield or screaming at you from the stands. Instead, maybe we could be more like the mom sitting in the rain on the NHTSA commercial, rooting on Diane in an 11-0 loss. Maybe put on those zebra stripes and lead in a new way. Maybe realize it’s just as cool to have a kid playing at Grace or Marian as it would be to play at Georgia or Michigan.
Let’s do better. Like, right now.