Poor Sportsmanship in the Stands Threatens Youth Sports

By Mia Herdeman, Current Staff

It would be shocking to hear a bank employee being heckled on the job: “Hey teller, you stink at counting money!”

But in the world of sports, that kind of workplace abuse is aimed at referees and umpires during every single game. For most officials, it’s only a seasonal side job, which means they go in their free time to supervise the game for little compensation. When disrespect is part of the deal, it makes the job less appealing. Right now, area sports organizations are facing a shortage of those willing to serve as game officials.

Mark Herdeman, a soccer official for 25+ years, can account for this. He remembers an incident when a colleague’s youthful appearance was targeted by parents.

“He was a 22 or 23-year-old official, he looks young. So the comment was maybe you’d know the rules if you were older than 12,” Herdeman said.

Fortunately, in this situation the athletic director of the school was contacted and further addressed it with the coach and parents.

Mark Herdeman, in the middle wearing green, referees a soccer game. Photo courtesy of Herdeman.

Herdeman says that profanities are thrown toward officials in almost every game. Most officials he is in contact with have been in this profession for long enough that they have thick skin. However for the newer referees who aren’t prepared for uncivil parents, they are easily discouraged and quit.

“We’re in a situation right now where we are short officials almost every day and they’re scrambling to going on to get games covered,” Herdeman said.

Herdeman emphasized that he has yet to have a perfect game, and no official or player is perfect.

As a parent himself, he understands that the moms and dads in the crowd are protective, but he points out that some players yell back at their parents, telling them they just want to play.

Mike Kieser, a baseball umpire and recently retired West Bend social studies teacher, once had to stop a game to address the situation. He says that the worst behavior he has witnessed was not among players but among fans and shares Herdeman’s concern about how this damages a sport’s ability to attract supervisors.

“It’s simple. No officials equal no games,” Kieser said, adding that when he was a high school athlete, he benefited from the efforts of the officials. 

Erin Frias, a college basketball referee (and high school soccer official), says that she doesn’t receive many insults, but she does hear negative comments. She says because basketball occurs in a smaller space than soccer, the coaches can catch when the parents are being verbally violent. That being said, coaches hear what is being said towards their officials, they do get involved.

Erin Frias, left, officiating a basketball game. Photo courtesy of Frias.

Having decades of experience, all three referees agree that the maturity level of crowds has decreased with the arrival of newer technology.

Herdeman recalls a 2019 game when, after the game ended, a player forcefully came toward him and threatened him, both physically and verbally. He says that this specific player didn’t think that it would matter because it was his last game, however his coach and athletic director witnessed this and further action was taken.

When it comes to misbehaving fans, Herdeman says officials are trained to not interact with spectators. But overzealous fans could still take soccer’s “card system” to heart.

A yellow card is a technical foul. For example, complaining about the referee’s calls might earn a player a yellow card. A red card is an ejection and if it’s played on the field, it affects the team just as well as the player. In high school soccer games, a red card means the athlete must miss the team’s next game.

Herdeman compares the card system to a traffic light.

“Think of it as a stoplight,” he said. “You get one yellow card, that is like, slow down, think about what you’re doing.”

(Top image: Mike Kieser umpires a baseball game in 2017. Photo courtesy of Kieser. Full disclosure: The writer of this article is related to Mark Herdeman.)

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