Teaching respect for sports officials begins with coaches and parents

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for sports officials.

Hockey star Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals blamed the referees for his team’s collapse and first-round departure in the NHL playoffs.

A Major League Baseball umpiring crew — considered by many to be the best trained and most experienced in the business — not only gets a home run call wrong on the field, but refuses to change it back after seeing conclusive evidence on a video replay.

One night later, a baseball crew allows a pitching-change rule violation that even many casual fans know was incorrect.

A few nights after that, umpires in a Twins-White Sox miss two calls that were proven to be pretty bad by replays.

In the heat of the NBA playoffs, countless calls by referees are proven wrong on video replay and coaches are fined tens of thousands of dollars for criticizing the officials after the games.

And the most startling of all doesn’t come on a pro court. Or an NFL field. Or a major league diamond.

It comes on a recreational soccer field in Utah, of all places.

By now, most of you have heard about the referee who was apparently punched in the head by a 17-year-old player and died a week later in the hospital.

The case is a tragedy no matter how you slice it. No matter your view, no matter your position in sports, whether you are a player, coach, parent or referee.

By all accounts, the incident at the soccer field was not provoked. There was no previous history between the referee and the player.

The referee whistled a foul and issued a yellow card. Yellow cards, which are given as cautions to help referees maintain control, and warn players and coaches to take it down a notch, are issued on average once a game, especially when high school-aged boys are involved. They are more frequent the older the age group and the more competitive the match.

When used effectively by an experienced official, they are very efficient and proper tools to keep the focus on the play, not the behavior.

Many parents out there have watched a local soccer match or baseball game and had some second thoughts about the skills of the official or umpire.

I’m with you. It happens. They are not all created equal.

However, I’ve learned over the years that no matter what you think about the calls of the official, umpire or referee or linesman, it’s not going to make a difference in the game.

Case in point: Major League Baseball has been vilified for years for not having instant replay. The league finally agreed to the reviews for home runs and still can’t get it right.

When you look back on most umpired or refereed sporting events, the right calls are made 90 percent to 95 percent of the time. From time to time, the wrong calls are very wrong or made at a very crucial time, say the top of the ninth in a one-run game. And at times, emotion makes it seem that a call, a strike, a hooking call or a penalty kick are like life and death.

And it really, truly is not.

Until emotion takes over and you swing at the referee and he dies.

Then, it’s about life and death.

So who’s to blame?

Certainly, all officials can continue to get better, train and prepare so they are in a position to make the right call to the best of their ability.

But much of the pressure comes back to the adults who set the examples for young players who grow into college players, pro players, coaches, weekend warriors and fans.

As adults, we need to remind our kids and our charges that the calls of the referee do not affect the outcome of the game, that the play of the teams, the talents of the participants and the strategy of the coaches are what determine the result.

If a coach has a concern, most leagues — big and small — have avenues that they can take to discuss the actions or performance of the official.

The field of play is not the place. In front of the 15-year-old players is not the place. Complaining to the media is not the forum for such discourse.

A sea change of greater respect toward each other and especially those in authority is needed, and it starts with all of us, especially those in a position of influence. Talk to your kids and players about what happened in Utah. Get the message out now, today, tonight, before another referee — and 17-year-old kid — loses his life.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State Editor of The Herald-Mail. He also is a longtime high school and youth soccer referee. Reach him at billk@herald-mail.com or at 301-791-7281.

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