Across the country officials are leaving their sport because of inappropriate coach or fan behavior. It is one thing to be raked over the coals for a perceived missed call in the NFL, MLB, or NBA. It is quite another to be chastised endlessly by coaches and fans at every high school and youth game.
For some officials the love of officiating is replaced by a desire to get the game over. That results in giving marginal effort or making calls that speed the game along at the expense of fairness or player safety. Ironically, those actions add to coach and crowd displeasure and amplify the negative comments coming from the sideline.
Why is it that an official can see an MLB umpire ejecting a coach for extreme behavior on a Friday, but struggles calling anything on a coach screaming vulgarities in a 12U game on Saturday? Many officials don’t want to eject a fan or penalize the coach out of fear of being known as that official — the one who is unable to take a little heat. That fear leads to meek officials that cannot enforce conduct rules or to indifferent officials that shun their role in policing conduct.
Consider the official that has no trouble flagging a slash but allows a coach to berate him while reporting the penalty, picking up his flag, and or jogging to his new position. On what grounds is the second violation of rules overlooked?
Or, the official that permits repeated and excessive verbal abuse verbal abuse from fans to distract him or her, yet does nothing but lament that parents are ruining a good game. Why? While yelling at sporting events is to be expected, there are times when some coaches and fans go beyond what is decent and need to be reigned in. Fortunately, the rules grant officials authority over bad behavior and the tools to manage it.
NFHS rule 2.6.3 states: “An official may suspend the play of the game for any reason deemed necessary for the proper enforcement of the rules or conduct of the game.”
Lacrosse officials have collectively failed to live up to this rule, especially at the youth level. We officials know about this failure but rarely openly acknowledge it. We allowed bad behavior to grow into this gigantic problem, and yet we still wonder why a second-year official quits, why attendance for officiating classes dwindles, and why this problem appears to get worse every year. There are two reasons for this.
First, officials are not trained to manage behavior until about three years into their career. Second, officials abrogated their responsibility to maintain the “conduct of the game,” and instead blamed others.
Officials must recognize that their authority comes with responsibility. Officials are responsible for conduct rules involving the behavior of each player and coach at their game. When slashing is never enforced, stick swinging will increase. When unsporting behavior is never addressed, offenders will take that as license to go further.
Poor coach and fan behavior is not a coach and fan problem. It has become an officiating problem caused by those unable or unwilling to call appropriate penalties and eject individuals, and by associations that fail to adequately train their new and most vulnerable officials. If officials and associations commit to these three solutions, the trend of officials fleeing lacrosse due to bad behavior can be reversed.
1. You, the official, need to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge that you are part of the problem. That problem will not be solved by shirking responsibility for maintaining appropriate sideline decorum. Most of us have a story about an out-of-control coach or fan, but when asked what they did about it, the most common answer is: “I just ignored it and tried to focus on the game.”
Ignoring this problem does not make it go away. The moment a coach or fan gets into your head enough to distract you from watching safety and fairness, you are no longer officiating. You become a spectator for long enough to allow something bad to happen. You and your partners are the only authority on the field, and you have an obligation to the game to fix behavior that goes past your threshold. Or you can continue to ignore the fact that your inaction condones the behavior and forces the next official to deal with it.
2. Officiating associations must allocate more time to training new officials in game management. Waiting until year three is too long. Officials quit after one year because their experience was a nightmare. They knew how to conduct a faceoff and signal goals, but they lacked the tools to professionally adjust bad behavior.
New officials should be required to watch the webinars on Game Management and The Ramp at learning.uslacrosse.org (login required). More classroom time should be dedicated to discussing game management and watching videos of professional officials interacting with players and coaches. New officials need to be introduced to these skills in their first training classes otherwise they are set up for failure from the start.
3. NFHS rule 2.3.3 states: “Coaches shall assist the officials in keeping the game under control at all times. It shall be their duty ... to control effectively actions of spectators not in conformity with standards of proper conduct.”
This means that coaches can be enlisted by the officiating crew to help maintain good conduct. However, coaches cannot address problems if they are not made aware of those problems. Officials should take the time when appropriate to speak with head coaches or site administrators and ask for help to manage situations of poor behavior from players, assistant coaches, or spectators. Watch the “Why Can’t We Be Friends” (login required) webinar to learn more about how coaches and officials can work together for a better game.
It is time for officials to stop complaining and take action. We have the authority to stop the game and have a word with the head coach about a frenzied assistant. We have the authority to get the head coach or site administrator to warn the sidelines. We have the authority to eject individuals who are so out of control that the game becomes more about their antics and less about the players.
Every association needs to spend more time teaching game management, and every official needs to ask themselves: “Am I going to step up and be part of the solution, or will I allow this problem to grow with my inaction?”