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Mistreatment of sports officials sees rapid increase

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) - As time has gone on, sports in general have evolved.

There is a larger emphasis on passing in football. Three-pointers are a significant part to modern basketball. The list goes on. However, that also applies to the officials who oversee sporting events. And they feel that there has been a change in how they have been treated by players, coaches and fans.

Kevin Carroll of the La Crosse Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry has officiated sports for over three decades and believes the demeanor of young athletes has changed from when he was coming of age.

“How things have evolved over time the last 30-35 years, especially the last few years, I see less respect for officials and umpires than I have in the past," Carroll said. "Especially this year, I’ve seen kids more so than in the past, argue. Just blatantly argue. When I was a kid being raised playing sports, you just didn’t do that. It was a no-no. It was unheard of. Now you see it. It just happens a lot more.”

Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials and developer of Referee Magazine, has been in the sports officiating business even longer and deals with incidents involving officials. Upon seeing the change in how they are treated, he says some don't feel safe during or following certain games.

“It’s never been worse than it is right now," Mano said. "Back in the day, we never had conversations about our safety. We didn’t worry where we were going to go after the game or to make sure a security officer was going to be outside our dressing room door to walk us to the parking lot because we were worried about our safety. We didn’t have those conversations back then. Now it is a requirement. That alone tells you how we as a society have come.”

Terry Erickson has officiated for over 50 years and has seen coaches come up to him with complaints multiple times. Whenever an official finds themselves in a situation like this, Erickson says following the Golden Rule will result in a much more manageable experience for both sides.

“If a coach comes up to me and in a respectful way, not a condescending way, treats me with dignity, I’m going to address his concern," Erickson said. "If a coach runs out and screams in my face and treats me with complete disrespect, perhaps I’m going to react the same way that he reacted toward me. I do not mind questioning calls or asking for clarification because officials make mistakes and they have to understand that. It’s all about the art of communicating.

When asked about a specific example of mistreatment he's faced, Erickson described a pre-Olympic basketball game in Europe that saw fans of Sweden and Italy get riled up. Erickson said he and his crew were able to de-escalate the situation, resulting in calm discussions between the officials, fans and coaches.

When it comes to spectators, namely the parents of young athletes who are not a part of the on field product, studies show that they are the largest issue with regard to disrespecting and abusing officials. Some even become physical.

“With parents and fans, they’re the worst violators," Mano said. "The surveys are clear about this. That the worst violators when it comes to physical harm towards a sports official, that comes from the parents and fans at the youth and rec level. That’s where the biggest problem is. It’s not so much at the high school level. It’s certainly not so much at the college or pro levels.”

Mano says he regularly gets video of calls from officials from spectators in protest. While replay is not allowed in most settings and the outcome stands little chance of changing, officials feel the inability to let certain things go sets a bad example for young athletes.

“I think that parents need to be great role models for their children," Carroll said. "I’ve always thought that sports is a microcosm of society. You go to a ball game on a Saturday and just kind of watch people. It’s amazing how sometimes people step out of line and how they behave.”

All of the struggles and heckling, along with the pandemic, have caused a staffing issue among sports officials. Efforts to attract participants are nothing new, but the perception of their work has made it hard for new officials to stick with their jobs.

“My concern is the recruitment and the retainment of young officials that are involved in youth sports in the area and beyond," Erickson said. "Are they going to continue? That’s the point of concern throughout this country. Losing the number of young officials that don’t want the commitment, maybe the pay, have had some unpleasant experiences.”

Despite the lows, those who do officiate feel people should strongly consider suiting up.

“I would encourage young people to get involved because I think from the La Crosse area, and probably generically around the country and around the state of Wisconsin, people are getting older and we need a new crop of people to come in," Carroll said. "I think if you get into umpiring and officiating, it gets in your blood. I love doing it and I know for a fact that the umpires and officials around the La Crosse area are very good. They care about kids. They work hard. They want to be a part of the game. They want to help kids out and I think that’s the bottom line.”

Because of these issues, some games locally and beyond have gotten postponed or even cancelled due to the lack of officials able to work them.

Click here for more information on how to become a sports official.

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