News Article

Refs say culture of abuse has to change: 'We are targets'

Published on: 2017-05-11 21:22:09

by Jason Scott May 2017, USA TODAY

Stories about unruly fans, parents, coaches or even players creating threatening environments for high school sports officials have become common. Could it finally be having an impact on sports leagues’ abilities to find people willing to do the job?

USA Today High School Sports conducted interviews with high school officials from several New York state counties to shed light on how a toxic culture in high school sports is affecting them.

“When we walk into a gym, or an arena, or a field, right away, we are targets,” Phil McGovern, who referees four different sports at different levels, told USA Today HSS. “As soon as we blow the whistle, 50 percent of the people are going to disagree with what we say — right off the bat.”

That kind of environment can often lead to situations where referees feel threatened. Officials often plan a venue exit strategy ahead of time, just in case a situation takes an ugly turn.

McGovern recounted one such situation in which a parent put his hands on the hood of his car, preventing him from leaving a venue following a fifth grade basketball game. Police had to be called.  

“For that game, I made $50,” he said. “Is it worth this stress for $50?”

It can often be even worse for female officials, who are often targets of sexist abuse.

“I’ve had a mix and heard everything,” Suzanne Gunn, a 14-year officiating veteran said. “Sometimes it’s hurtful, and maybe that’s why some women don’t stick with it.”

A 2001 report released by the National Association of Sports Officials detailed a shortage of referees. Barry Mano, the president and founder of the group, blamed a “basket of reasons” for shortages, but added that bad behavior is indeed a factor.

“People are saying, ‘Why am I going out and doing this?’ We have got to control the way sports officials are treated and respected. We have to turn the train around and they have to be fully valued and respected, ” Mano said.

Schools, districts, conferences and state associations have adopted codes of conduct for attendees of their events, hoping to curb bad behavior. A task force created by Safe Sport Zone, in association with the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association and American Family Insurance, gave banners to schools around the country to help them communicate their expectations.

Jay Hammes, president and founder of Safe Sport Zone, told Athletic Business that commonsense measures can be taken to help ensure a safe environment. Among his recommendations are to separate opposing fans, both in seating and exit routes, and to have both security and surveillance present. 

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