Out of Bounds: Parents' actions in the stands hurting the integrity of the game

Out of Bounds: Parents' actions in the stands hurting the integrity of the game

(WTOL) - All year long, high school athletes train to the point of exhaustion, all for the game.

Not for practice, for the game.

"The games are the pinnacle event for these student-athletes," said Richard Browne, Commissioner of the Northern Lakes League. "They work so hard in the off-season and during the season to not have those games, what's the real purpose of practicing? Nobody wants to practice. As we get further along in every season, practice becomes secondary, and the kids want to play in games. We want to see our teams playing in games."

A game under the lights and in front of their fans, including their parents.

A recent study from Youth Sports Statistics showed 37 percent of young athletes do not want their parents at their games. There is a reason for that shocking statistic.

Parents are putting so much pressure on their child to perform to get that coveted college scholarship.

And it is this pressure, almost acting like a catapult, that launches parents from their seats when a call does not go their child's way.

Parents and players react to story of rowdy parents at athletic events

Thom Dartt, a varsity football and basketball official in northwest Ohio, has seen this back fire firsthand.

"I just recently had an NCAA Division I coach drop one of the kids [a boys' basketball player] from consideration because of the way the mom and dad acted at a game," Dartt said. "They were yelling at officials, other players and criticizing coaching strategy.  The college coach left the game in the 3rd quarter, called me and said, 'We are pulling the scholarship offer.  We don't want those parents around our program.  They would be cancerous.'"

What they are not thinking about as their face is beat red and they are yelling is who they are yelling at did not ask to be berated.

Tom Gibbons has been a referee for almost 40 years.

He has seen it all.

"You want your child to succeed, you want your team to succeed, and that's understandable, but there is a line," Gibbons explained.

"We try to have really thick skin. We have to, but if they're maybe taking personal shots, it gets a little bit, it wears on you," said Kyle Hunt, an OSHAA basketball official.

These men and women are not out there because this is their full time job. Rather it is a hobby.

"One guy owns his own small roofing company, other guy is a banker, another guy is an engineer, and these are professionals," Gibbons said. "But it's something they just do because it's a fun thing to do. Some people bowl, some people crochet, we referee."

In northwest Ohio, most of these officials only make $60 to $70 a game while giving up a night with their families.

"They are normal everyday people, and they did not sign up for you to come yell at them, badger them, make comments about them, personal or not personal. They're there for the love of the game, and they're a very integral part of it. We can't lose sight of that", said Browne.

And when they are getting this much grief after a full day's work, it is making some of them hang up their whistle for good.

"They've been doing it 10-15 years and they have just had enough. They said I'm not coming here for this amount of money, traveling this far, to get this amount of grief," Gibbons said. "They put up with people who are obviously bias toward their team, or don't know the rules."

This is something athletic departments around the area are taking very seriously because they know if this does not stop now, the outcome could be heartbreaking.

"It's like an endangered species. We have to look at the environment, make sure they can thrive, protect them and change some things so it's real," said Perrysburg Athletic Director Chuck Jaco.

At the beginning of this year, the NLL sent out a letter to parents warning them about the shortage.

“In the last few years, we have seen an alarming number of officials retire or not renew their certifications to continue to be officials.  In some sports, it has recently gotten to the point where we are having a difficult time finding officials to officiate games across Northwest Ohio.  One of the main reasons officials are leaving is because of the verbal abuse they encounter at many athletic contests.”

"I keep using the phrase, be proactive vs. reactive. I don't want to get to that point," Jaco said. "I want to create an environment now that prevents that from happening."

Ben Ferree, the OSHAA Officials Registrar, says it is real. He has seen the numbers dropping, especially when the economy is good and people do not need to supplement their income.

Right now, Browne says, the NLL has not had to cancel any games, but they have gotten close.

"In fact this week, there were two games that we were finding officials literally hours before the games took place," said Browne.

"That's a reality. If we are going to have to start shuffling nights that we play on different evenings, if this is how we are going to have to share officials," Jaco said. "So for a student-athlete to have to hear that two, three hours before a game, that would be a nightmare for any school district, for any athletic department to have to rearrange schedules because of official shortages."

Although some may suggest it might be better if less referees are on the court to yell at, Browne knows it could get even more dangerous if they don't have the proper number of officials for a game.

"We would potentially have to cancel that game, if we don't have the proper number of officials to officiate a game, we don't want to put a single official or two officials into a position, where we are jeopardizing the consistency of the game," said Browne.

Traveling, a flagrant foul, whatever call is made, officials want to remind fans it is not personal.

"It's not about you. It's about the game. Protecting the integrity of the game, calling a fair game," said Hunt.

"You're not doing it because you're trying to go against one team or the other. You're doing it so you get the call right," Gibbons explained. "And it's not about us. It's not about the coaches. It's not about the fans. It's about those players on the floor. Those are the people we are there for."

Gibbons says he has noticed this trend has gotten worse as more parents are having their athletes focus on one sport.

Officials say while parents have been watching their son or daughter develop into a specialized athlete, they sometimes do not understand what they are yelling about and how different the game looks for an official's point-of-view.

"Every official who got into officiating because they were that parent or coach and thought they could do better says the same thing. 'Man, I had no idea how little I knew or how much tougher it is down on the court compared to sitting in the stands,'" said Dartt.

When the players act out and disagree with the call, Dartt says it only ignites the fans more and most of them are lying.

"It's the norm.  Winning is more important in those sports than integrity," Dartt said. "Don't believe me?  When was the last time you saw a player admit they were at fault, touched the ball last or did, in fact, foul."

Only a very slim number of these athletes will actually go on to play at the next level, making the sport about something bigger.

"There's more to interscholastic athletics than just the W's and L's. I think at the level when parents are upset with the officials, they're just thinking about the win and the loss at that moment," said Jaco.

Just like these parents come to watch their kids do what they love, the kids of these officials come to games too.

Tom Gibbons said once when his daughter was three-years-old, she came to watch him at a game. The whole first half, the couple next sitting next to the toddler was ripping into him.

Then their tune changed when they asked at halftime who she was there to watch and she pointed to the man with the ball in his hands.

That is a story happening to more than one local official when their kids are in the stands.

Kyle Hunt, a father of four, said, "I even might warn them, 'You might hear some things. Don't get discouraged because it doesn't bother dad.'"

Even when someone in the stands does not agree with a call, chances are it is in their best interest to keep their thoughts to themselves.

"Berating that official in the first quarter surely isn't going to help you along the lines at the end of the game," said Jaco.

As the clock keeps ticking and more officials are retiring, all of these people involved in high school athletics are asking fans to keep things in perspective.

"These are interscholastic sports, played by young men and young women who are not of age 18, that we are trying to cultivate for the next generation," Browne said. "And you pay seven dollars in our league to come see a basketball game and that doesn't give you the right to badger our officials, yell at coaches. This is a great environment to be a part of and we want you to be a part of that."

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