Sports are a mirror of society, a microcosm of all the other things that comprise the good and the bad features of modern existence. The decline of civility in America as a whole is clearly revealed on your local football field, or basketball court, and it’s not just from clueless, rabid, maniacal fans berating game officials. The poison has spread to the bench with coaches routinely exhibiting bad behavior, behavior that is reflected in the actions of their players.
The demise of prep athletics is upon us. In conferences large and small, rural and metropolitan, lower level programs are being canceled for lack of officials. Middle school programs will soon be a thing of the past, and if this bad behavior continues, the American amateur athletic landscape will soon disappear. Replaced by less than desirable club level athletics.
We don’t want German style basketball clubs in Indiana, or pay-to-play football programs in Wyoming, Kansas, and Georgia, but that is the future if the harassment and sometimes violence against high school officials continue.
Has it always been this way? The answer is a resounding no. Veteran officials Jack Hildner of Riverton, and Joe White of Lovell have called games since the 1970s. Hildner began officiating football 45 years ago, and White has officiated football and basketball, along with working as a starter and track officials three years longer, dating back to 1974. The game has changed.
“The 3 point shot has changed the game, man to man defense has changed the game. The 3 man concept was a positive move. How many calls did we miss in the two man days?” White said. “When the emphasis on man to man came, a lot of it we didn’t see. The speed of the game and the physical contact has become more prevalent, especially in the paint.”
This speed and physical play can be handled by officials, but it brings screams from the crowd. “In the first couple of minutes I’m looking at the in the paint matchups,” White said. “I try to set the tone early. Be consistent and try to keep the coaches off you.”
The increasing hostility of society as a whole is reflected on the court.
“There is more arrogance and ego, officiating can be the same way,” White said. “I don’t think the commitment is there for younger officials like it was in the old days. I knew for the kids to have games, we had to have officials.”
White still works varsity football and is a familiar face at track meets, but he has moved to lower levels in basketball.
“We need to continue to recruit young officials. You have to mentor young officials. You have to set up younger officials with an experienced official. Weekly meetings and different scenarios are important to discuss. Giving them court time with experienced officials is good training,” White said. “The speed of the game is even faster in 3A than it is in 2A. Keeping them positive and motivated is hard to do with the younger officials. First, they have to have a positive experience right off the bat. Officiating is not for everyone, it takes a special person to deal with the coaches, the crowd, and the arrogant players. They have to want to be part of it.”
Hildner sees the change in society clearly reflected on the football field.
“Absolutely it’s different. The major change I’ve seen is the lack of respect from fans for coaches, players, and officials. I think it’s our society. That is secondary to the loss of the family unit,” Hildner said.
Coaches, schools, administrators, league officials, and game officials all share some of the blame for this problem of disrespect.
“I think we need to start paying attention to it,” Hildner said. “We just let it go, we’ve sort of closed one eye, even as officials, and just accepted what it is. On the field, the thing I’ve seen is the foul language from coaches and players. The coaches don’t address the issue. They close their ears and by doing so they condone the actions of their players.”
Attracting young officials is a problem. A look at any officials association reveals a majority of officials in their 50s and 60s. The lack of younger officials filling the ranks as the veterans hang up the whistle is a looming problem.
“I think we have to be more active in recruiting at all levels. Not just state associations, but school levels and local associations as well. Schools need to start talking to young people, and let communities know that this is an issue,” Hildner said. “I have never done this for money. I can stay at work and do much better. I just enjoy working with kids. Young people see other opportunities that are income related and don’t look at it as what we can do for our fellow man.”
Officials were once local businessmen. They could be car dealers, insurance agents, high school teachers, dentists, bankers, or police officers, some still are, but cancel culture has affected the influx of new officials.
Businessmen who once officiated indicated their livelihood was affected after what fans considered controversial calls. Sometimes people stopped doing business with them. It was a no win situation for people dependent on the same clientele that watch local games.
While most established officials don’t need the money earned officiating, many beginning officials do enjoy the economic boost.
“In basketball, I did it for college money,” Tyler Watson said. “I got started in college at Chadron, doing varsity basketball in the Nebraska Panhandle. Obviously, it gets tiring to get chewed out on a Friday night when you could be home with your family.”
Football is a little different than basketball officiating. You’re part of a crew on the gridiron. In basketball, your face might as well be on the marquee, everyone can see you, and in small communities, even hundreds of miles away as Wyoming officials routinely work, people know you.
“In football, you get chewed by a coach, then the players start and it spreads to the fans. It’s human instinct not to be hated. I can deal with it in football because I love football,” Watson said.
In basketball, sometimes the tone is set the second an official emerges from the locker room.
“You walk out on the floor and the coaches see you, and there’s a letdown on their face,” Watson said.
Macey Mortimore is a young official who works both volleyball and basketball.
“I think we’ve lost a lot of good officials, not just because of behavior, but people in general, fans, obnoxious kids,” Mortimore said. “They’re sick of the crap from the crowd.”
Mortimore didn’t officiate this season as she awaited the arrival of their second child, and missed the chance to call games.
“I’ve missed it all season, but it’s nice to not have the stress from being screamed at and yelled at by people who are ignorant of the rules,” Mortimore said. “It’s not just the fans, it’s the coaches, the kids on the bench that think they know the rules, people get tired of being yelled at.”
Mortimore has a slightly different viewpoint on officiating from the veterans who have decades under their belts.
“I get paid to work out. You get paid to run around. You can work when you’re comfortable when you want to, and you’re around the game you love,” Mortimore said.
Those are some of the hidden positives of officiating, but the negatives clearly outweigh any positive aspects of calling games.
“The attitude has to go away for the game to continue. The perks are there, but a lot of people give up on it because they’re getting yelled at,” Mortimore said.
At present, it’s only yelling in Wyoming prep athletics. Across the country officials have been punched by players and coaches during games, they’ve been followed home, threatened in parking lots, and had the windows in their homes broken.
What does this accomplish? It’s just a game the kids play but so many loosely defined “adults” take competition on a frenzied level and feel justified in committing crimes against officials. The only thing they’re accomplishing is destroying the game they profess to love.
With the lack of incoming younger officials, and the advancing age of most established officials it’s just a matter of time until games in the Cowboy State are canceled due to lack of officials.
Already varsity games have been moved to Thursday evenings, Friday afternoons, and Saturday mornings so officials can be found to work these contests. The same crew often officiates two games on Friday with an afternoon tilt at 2 or 3 p.m. and another that kicks off at 7.
In basketball, the same is true with a growing number of early afternoon games, followed by evening games by the same three-person crews.
If this continues, it is the death knell of prep sports in America. Civility in an activity that professes to teach the valuable qualities of unselfishness, teamwork, and striving for a common goal needs to live up to these professed values.