Personal attacks are driving good people from the game

Each time a new sports season begins, I notice how few of the referees are new faces – in other words, I see the same people calling the same games year after year.

There’s something to be said for experience, and only a few of the officials that call games locally show signs of age in their performance. But they show the same signs of age that I see when I look in the bathroom mirror each morning, and that’s cause for concern.

Yes, a few new faces join the ranks wearing stripes each year, but very few. Track and field may be in the worst position for the future – most of the young officials I see at track meets are eligible for retirement.

I’m not surprised, though – and I know the reason why: It’s the guy who sits behind us at hockey games.

Now, I can’t blame one person for a problem that is systemic in our society. Besides, he’s actually a nice guy and, aside from the persistent shouting at the referees, we enjoy his company.

But the constant yelling at officials, berating them even when they’re doing a good job – and let’s face it, most officials get most of their calls right most of the time – is why no one wants to be a referee.

Yes, they make mistakes. No, we aren’t going to have HD review in high school sports anytime soon. But as long as there’s consistency, you’ll have a fair game.

I’ve been thinking about this recently not just because of what we experience at hockey games (where we do have video review; I’ve actually heard fans make the ludicrous claim that one referee refused to change a call, claiming the video they didn’t see showed he was wrong) but because of a coach who quit his job in Lancaster County.

Joe Pearson coached football at Solanco High School for nine years. Most of them were not winning campaigns. This year, the team had a particularly rough outing, finishing 2-8. Pearson came under attack publicly – sad, but not surprising. If that was all that happened, and he quit over it, he probably needs thicker skin.

But then came the attacks on his wife and family. That’s not acceptable.

The Solanco story reminded me of a darker era here in Mifflin County – a time when the same thing happened.

One of my last conversations with former Lewistown coach Alan Muir was about the abuse from the stands during Panther football games – not so much what was aimed at him, but again, the jeers that targeted his family. He was pained by the way parents – of the children he was entrusted to teach and coach – were so quick to attack his loved ones.

Fans – especially parents – are even more relentless with officials, whom they see as ruining their kids’ chances at a scholarship. Or cheating their kids out of a trophy. Or just because they can’t accept the fact that maybe, just maybe, the other kid is a better athlete than theirs.

I’ve known a few wrestling referees who had the habit of carrying an application in their shirt pocket, and handing it over to any particularly loud fan in the stands. Usually, that brings the detractor down to Earth – the fans want to chastise the refs, but they certainly don’t want to put themselves in a position where they may have to take that kind of abuse.

I think referees tend to be too lenient with fans at sporting events – but the referees don’t want to be the game, they want to call the game, and that often means ignoring what’s coming from the seats.

It’s ironic that one coach quits over abuse from parents, while others heap it on referees – giving the students and others a bad example to learn from. Every so often, we’ll hear from a coach who will preface his comments by saying he doesn’t like to attack the referees – and then he’ll spend the rest of the conversation doing just that.

At least, unlike the guy behind us at hockey, they’re venting privately – and most don’t take time to learn the officials’ names to make their attacks more personal.

But now I have to find a way to convince our son that he should not learn by example.

Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at