Refs agree: Cool it, parents

Sports officials who concur with WIAA letter citing bad adult behavior for referee, umpire shortage say while verbal abuse is nothing new, it’s getting worse

LONGTIME OFFICIAL Gordon Jakus got ready for a Cedarburg player to shoot a free throw with an enthusiastic Port Washington student section behind him last Friday. Older officials have been working more games since younger ones are quitting due to the increase in criticism from parents, according to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. Photo by Mitch Maersch
Ozaukee Press staff

The letter from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association telling parents to cool it at high school sporting events because negative comments are causing a shortage of officials has touched a nerve across the state.

Some area umpires, school and league officials agree that verbal abuse has been an issue for years, but say that may not be the only reason referees are becoming harder to come by.

The WIAA letter says a recent survey by the National Association of Sports Officials shows that more than 75% of all high school officials cite “adult behavior” as the primary reason they quit, and 80% of young officials leave after two years.

Kevin Klotz, a coach and referee with the Port Washington Soccer Club that handles games of 8 through 18-year-olds said, “One game can kill the desire to become a referee.”

He has seen it happen in his own family. Klotz’s daughter had a negative experience with parents in a few games and didn’t referee anymore. His son had a good time early on and stuck with it for years.

But Klotz said he’s seen behavior improve in the club after it put out a memo for the second straight year instructing parents to back off and let coaches lead.

That may be a minority observation in youth sports.

“First, it’s nothing new. That’s always been an issue,” a Wisconsin State Youth Baseball assigner of umpires Darrel Standish of Mukwonago said.

“That being said, I think in the last 10 years it has gotten worse. People don’t seem to have filters anymore. They just say what they think.”

Standish handles 350 umps for 165 teams and 20 communities for ages second through eighth grade. He has seen umpires quit because of the increasingly unruly fans.

He teaches umpires to “plug their ears” but draw a line somewhere so other fans don’t see mean comments as acceptable behavior. He said grandparents – he’s 67 and is one himself -- tend to be worse because they have less of a filter and they don’t hear as well as they used to so they talk louder.

“A good umpire can de-escalate the situation. A bad umpire will make it worse.”

Teenage umpires, he said, “are not prepared for the abuse they take from parents. What I’ve done when I was supervising umpires, I’d say ‘How would you like it if I yelled at your kid for making a mistake in the field? Then why is it OK to yell at a 17-year-old.’”

Charlie Duff of Grafton, who has officiated basketball for 43 years and has been trying to retire but keeps getting calls because of the shortage, agrees that “young officials don’t want to be hollered at. If you go to basketball games, you’re starting to see it’s tough to get younger kids into it.”

Standish implements a strategy that can help. He tells officials to direct head coaches to get their fans under control.

“The fans will generally take that direction better from the head coach than the umpire, because the coach controls their kids’ playing time,” he said.

Dave Ernst of Okauchee has umpired for 32 years and runs an officials assigning business for youth through high school with 400 baseball and softball officials, said the shortage is partly because of the influx of social media and people wanting to stay inside.

When he umpires, he talks to fans before the games.

“I think it builds not only rapport, but it shows that you’re human,” he said.

Regardless, he said officials should learn to let comments go.

“I think we need to teach the officials to be a little more thick-skinned. That’s just an opinion. It takes a certain personality type to be an official to be effective.”

Athletic directors Thad Gabrielse of Port Washington High School and Kevin Moore of Grafton said they have had to go into the stands to tell a parent to simmer down.

“Most often, a reminder is sufficient,” Moore said.

They said basketball games tend to be worse because of the closer proximity to officials than in sports like football and soccer.

Moore said he has seen retirees getting pulled back in to referee, with the junior varsity pools seeing the largest shortages.

Gabrielse said there are other reasons for the shortages. Officials are being spread thinner now than before with all the traveling teams and YMCA leagues. At the start of high school baseball last year, he had difficulty hiring umpires because softball hadn’t ended yet. With baseball moving to spring across the state this season, that challenge will be greater.

It shines a light on the vital role of officials, Gabrielse said.

“Without officials, we wouldn’t have activities,” he said.

Moore said Grafton has student section leaders he talks with about how to display the school in the best way. Waukesha West has elections for student section captains, and Menomonee Falls used to run fan boot camp before the fall sports season.

Moore said conversations about fan behavior are harder to have with parents since they’re not at school all day, but their conduct is vital.

“A packed high school athletic event is one of the most phenomenal things in the world. Kids’ eyes and ears are open to what the adults are doing in the gym,” he said. “What you’re doing you may be telling somebody not a whole lot younger than you what to do at these events.”

Sometimes, players even model the behavior themselves. Cedar Grove-Belgium High School football coach Dan Schreurs said he has received emails praising how his players handle themselves.

The Rockets in the 2016 title game in Madison had one of the biggest reasons to be upset. A fumble call that most agree was an incomplete pass basically cost them the championship. Players did not argue and their bench did not scream and yell.

“Unfortunately we were controlled by the rules of no instant replay on that one and the official saw what he saw. I did have many crews tell me the year after that they did not agree with the call and thought that we handled the situation with highest of class given the stage we were on,” Schreurs said.

“We had that same crew the following year against Hilbert and the staff and players played the game as if nothing happened. The young me probably would have lost it but had something inside of me that kept me calm and collective. It could have been knowing that my actions were representing the team and school or with the transformation that team went through that year it might have been a higher power.”


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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