Sunday, January 13, 2008

1-13-08: Crazy Sports Parents

I had the pleasure of witnessing something that I haven't seen in some years now, and definitely haven't wanted to see since then: crazy sports parents. I was at a hockey rink last night before the team I coach was scheduled to play, and there was a game on before us that featured two surprisingly talented "Mite" level teams. Mites are anywhere from six to eight or nine years old. It was the top level of the age group, and the two teams were pretty good. But the graceful play on the ice was only 1/2 the game, because the parents of the away team were absolutely insane. One guy shouted almost non-stop for five minutes at the referee after his son's team was scored on because the goaltender didn't cover the puck quickly and the whistle wasn't blown before puck went in. Rather than realize it was just a tough play for the goaltender, the father in the stands took out his frustration on the referee. It's a scene played out in rinks, stadiums, arenas, fields, or any sports venue all over the country. It's wrong, and it has to stop.

From the age of 12 to 17, I refereed ice hockey. It was good money, and great exercise. But it's a brutal and taxing job when it comes to the crowd. For years, referee organizations have had trouble retaining young referees, because they so frequently quit because of all the abuse they receive from over-eager parents and coaches of young players. I can't remember how many times I was screamed at or berated by parents who were convinced I had somehow deliberately made or missed a call just to hurt their son or daughter's careers. It gets ridiculous. I didn't quit at 17 because of the parents; I got another job with better hours.

Since that time, a new initiative has emerged known as "Zero Tolerance." I even saw a sign at the rink last night advertising it. Basically, it says that there shall be no abuse of officials during games. The rinks are supposed to help enforce it, but many don't because it's a hassle to deal with crazy parents. Only a couple times can I remember having to deal with an ejection, and the way it's normally done is actually pretty clever: you just run the clock until the guilty party leaves. When I was 17, I was refereeing a squirt level game (9-12 year olds) and a father was just going ballistic, to the point that other parents had to calm him down. Well, the guy started shouting how he was going to kick my ass, so I just said to myself "Some poor kid is going to be even more embarrassed if I don't throw this asshole out," so I told the kid running the clock to just let it go. My refereeing partner was a couple years younger than me, and he was nervous because he had blown a call. I just said "Just stand in the middle of the ice with me and stare at the guy until he leaves." I told the coaches, and BOTH OF THEM AGREED. The guy's son was easy to pick out: he was all alone on the bench, crying. After a few minutes, I thought some one was going to run in with the rail to put the guy on, because it was mob rule in the stands. You start wasting everybody's time and you'll be surprised how quickly people turn on you. The guy protested, but left. He later went to apologize, but I just smiled and said "I don't want your apology, buddy. I just never want to see your face in the stands when I'm on the ice." He was pissed, and fuming, but I never saw him again.

I'm only talking about the aspect of abuse of officials, though. The fact that so much pressure is put on the kids is a whole other issue. But what I saw last night reminded me of how bad I felt for young officials. One of the refs couldn't have been older than 13, and he was getting just bombed with boos and sarcasm from the stands. I wanted to go up to the guy yelling and just say "You know what, he probably did blow a call, but I bet you've never been in his situation. I have, and I have no stake in this game, but I know I don't like you. Do you think yelling at a 13 year old, young referee is good for the game? Is that how you want your seven year-old son to play? Do you want him to grow up thinking everything is unfair and it's OK to just shout sarcasm at referees? I hope not."

Please, if you have or ever will have a child that plays competitive sports, which I wholeheartedly believe are good overall for a child's development, don't go crazy at games. I have seen how terribly harmful it is to the game, the child, and the officials. Your child may be precious to you, but it does not give you the right to abuse another person who is only there to maintain order. It's wrong, and people who do it are hurting the sport.

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