Foul treatment cited in shortage of East Mississippi sports officials

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

Willie Hopson, a referee with the Mississippi High School Activities Association, makes a call on a foul at a Quitman High School game July 7, 2020 in Quitman, Mississippi.

Time Out!

A shortage of high school sports officials and the reasons behind it, should serve as a wakeup call to coaches, parents and fans.

A nationwide trend is showing that fewer people are willing to work as sports officials.

We thought the cause might be part of the same trend that has led fewer people to join civic organizations and social clubs or to volunteer for fire departments and other community service – a greater demand on our time and the retreat into the lonely world of social media.

But that’s not the reason given by sports officials.

The primary reason cited for the shortage is the treatment officials receive from coaches and spectators. A survey conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials in 2017 of more than 17,000 officials found that 70.5 percent feel officials are treated unfairly by coaches and 84.6 percent feel they are treated unfairly by spectators. Additionally, 57 percent said sportsmanship is growing worse.

“Fans and coaches alike feel freer to downgrade officials, and holler and scream at them, as opposed to the way it was 10 years ago,” Mississippi High School Activities Association Associate Director and officials coordinator Rickey Neaves said. “You can see where that is getting worse and worse with parents and coaches blaming officials or staying on an official to the point where they’re just not going to take it, so they just get out.”

We think it’s both another example of misplaced priorities that place sports too highly and a culture of polarization that accepts screaming at each other as an acceptable form of communication.

Coaches feel pressured to win or lose their jobs. Parents pay thousands of dollars so their children can play sports year-round, with the unrealistic belief that they will be rewarded someday with a college scholarship or a lucrative professional contract.

The reality is few will find such success and in the meantime the athletes, coaches and spectators lose the experience of having fun playing a game and the lessons in teamwork and sportsmanship that can go along with it.

Coaches and fans like to cite the benefit sports provides of practicing real life lessons.

Yelling at refs might prepare the young athletes for close encounters with drill sergeants, but we know of few other real-life situations where it’s acceptable for screaming in the workplace or trying to influence police officers by throwing a tantrum after a traffic stop.

Coaches and fans need to step back.

They need to imagine the day when their game will be canceled because there are too few men and women willing to put up with abuse and officiate.

They need to imagine the day when their games are played in isolation, with no fans allowed because their game sites have become too threatening.

They need to imagine the type of life lessons they are providing to the young people in their care.

School administrators need to step back, too.

Are they placing too much pressure on their coaches to win? Is the lesson they want to instill, win or else …?

Would they allow similar behavior in their classrooms? Why is it acceptable to allow threatening behavior in a school venue?

Referees will tell you not all sports venues are the same. They know where they’re likely to find a hostile coach and crowd.

In gyms where coaches take a calmer approach and don’t ride the officials, the fans follow suit. There are good examples to find.

Administrators, coaches, parents and fans, the lesson you can learn from a shortage of officials is in your hands.

What will you do with this knowledge?

Editorial written by Dave Bohrer, editor of The Meridian Star, regional editor for CNHI in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

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