Last week, the Indiana High School Athletic Association forwarded a papal bull to newspapers across the state about the crisis in officiating and parents and adult fans' role in it. This "white paper" was written by Karissa Niehoff, Executive Director of the National Federation of High School Associations and Bobby Cox, commissioner of our IHSAA. The Tribune-Star ran their proclamation in our Sept. 6 editorial page.
I tease with the papal bull and white paper jibes because the IHSAA takes itself so seriously that it's hard to resist getting a dig in, but the fact of the matter is that almost everything Niehoff and Cox wrote rings true. The letter said that 62.3 percent of officials said "dealing with aggressive parents and adult fans." was what they liked least.
Anyone who attends a high school sporting event knows how poorly-behaved, self-absorbed and entitled parents and overly-engaged adult fans can be. I've heard some vile garbage over the years — almost all of it directed at officials.
What has always struck me is how the rage goes from 0-to-200 quicker than Alexander Rossi clears the front straightaway at Indianapolis. There are too many fans who walk into a sporting event with the idea that officials are there to screw them over and they need the slightest prevarication to fly off the handle. It's a wrath-fueled feedback loop.
(A dirty little secret, and one not addressed in the IHSAA letter, is that too many schools have a sort of nod-nod, wink-wink attitude toward this behavior because some of the angriest fans are also some of the most loyal, ticket-buying fans. Wouldn't want to hurt the gate just for a bit of aggro now would we?)
I will say, however, that I don't think this behavior is new. As I said above, I've heard vituperative nastiness from day one from adults and I can guarantee it wasn't much better in the generations before mine. It was likely just as bad or worse in the days when high school sports in Indiana were everything.
(Students have become better-behaved. Partly because many schools police them to the point of a SuperMax prison. Go to a game and count how many deans and athletic personnel "guard" the student section. Perhaps the manpower used to clamp down on students is better served for their parents?)
I think what has changed is that a generation or two have been raised to not accept verbal abuse of any kind or in any context. The days where the Bob Knight-style verbal harangues were tolerated without consequence — and they occurred in schools and in professional life as well as sports for many years — are long gone.
And before faux-tough guys think I mean this means we've gone soft or that society's skin has thinned past a breaking point, think again, cavemen. I'm all for officials not putting with garbage behavior from fans. Life is too short.
Unfortunately, one of the few avenues of public life where this no-tolerance-for-verbal-abuse standard hasn't been applied to how fans treat officials. They're still red meat.
Officials have decided, en masse, that they're tired of the BS. The Niehoff-Cox treatise (OK, enough teasing) stated an 80 percent rate in which officials quit before they reach two years.
Obviously, this is a huge problem, but I'm not so sure this problem begins or ends by tsking-tsking parents. This problem runs a lot deeper and requires more action than just a letter to the editor.
Guess where disrespect for officials is most often demonstrated? Between the lines. Parents may be acting like spoiled children up in the stands, but too often, so are the participants. Abuse of officials is considered part of the game — almost every game.
There are plenty of coaches who unmercifully treat officials with contempt as a matter of course — an enemy on-par with the actual opponent.
(One thing might help is the IHSAA could have a centralized method of assigning officials instead of letting schools do it. Many coaches are convinced they're going to get homered from the time they walk in the building.)
Naturally, this attitude permeates to the players, who learn, via the actions of their coaches and egged on by adults in the stands, that officials aren't there to adjudicate the rules and be arbiters of fair play. Disrespect is a learned thing and players learn it early and often.
You see this attitude reach the highest level of sports. NBA stars act like their firstborn was taken from them when called for a foul, gesticulating in the face of officials who are just supposed to stoically take it. Batters jaw with umpires over a borderline strike call very, very few players or fans alike could ever call accurately if placed in the ump's shoes. Wide receivers throw their hands up to protest pass interference — before the play is over.
We've accepted this because what happens between the lines is off-limits to the norms of society because ... competitive fire! We accept competitive fire as an excuse for everything in sports where we'd never accept it anywhere else. It's legalized impulse.
We don't accept impulse as an acceptable excuse for bad behavior anywhere else. So why do we put up with it in sports? Which gets us back to vociferous parents. If the sporting bodies won't back their officials with rules and deterrence to keep the participants in-line, it really doesn't matter what the parents do, does it? They're just the scapegoats.
It's long past time to give officials some teeth to control what they can control within the lines. Dissent has to be dealt with harshly. Officials who clamp down quickly are considered to have an itchy trigger finger by today's standard. Well, it's time for a lot of fingers to get itchy. Let officials be the new sheriff in town in the Wyatt Earp sense, not the ineffectual Barney Fife sense that we seem to want now.
For example, if a coach or player swears or "shows up" an official with a disrespectful gesture of dissent? An immediate penalty (football), technical foul (basketball) or warning (baseball) is mandatory. No leeway, no exceptions. Me? I'd likely get a tech within a minute of my first game by that standard, but I'd quickly learn the boundaries. All players would or pay a heavy price.
One more outburst? Not only are you ejected from the game, but a dissent-based offense will get a player a one-game suspension to go with it. Coaches should get double what players get because they're ostensibly supposed to be a responsible, mentoring party. This needs to happen at all levels, not just high school.
Until we give officials some teeth to fight back, they will get abused. Giving them due respect starts between the lines.
Then the no-nonsense, zero-tolerance vibe being practiced on-the-court can permeate to the manner in which schools handle unruly fans off of it. Until then? All of the talk and letters to the editor aren't going to amount to much.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter at @TribStarTodd.