PRESS EDITORIAL: Don’t look, kids, but some of your parents are obnoxious fans

Blow the whistle. Call the foul. Assess the penalty. Eject the perpetrator from the game for repeated offenses.

No, we’re not calling for a crackdown on bad behavior by players in the youth sports games that millions of Americans enjoy watching. This is about the fouls committed by parents of the players—shouting criticism at officials, acting out aggressively to harass and intimidate referees and even the young players.

The intrusion of the conduct of overzealous parents into the revered and largely wholesome institution of organized children’s sports is a national phenomenon manifested in a worsening shortage of referees. They are quitting in droves, and most of them say it’s because they’re tired of taking the abuse.

It’s happening in Wisconsin. “We have a shortage of licensed high school officials in Wisconsin,” Todd Clark, communications director for the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, said. “Not only are experienced officials retiring, but younger officials are quitting. Why? Because of parental abuse.”

Around the state, including in Ozaukee County, games have been rescheduled or canceled because referees were not available.

The athletic director of a high school in the North Shore Conference, which includes Port Washington, Grafton, Cedarburg and Thiensville-Mequon, told a reporter, “The parents who cheer the right way and have proper etiquette at games far outweigh the ones that don’t, but those that don’t tend to be the loudest and most difficult to deal with.”

This is a relatively recent bad turn of affairs. Parents have been enthusiastic followers forever of the sports teams their children join. But back a generation or two, the idea that a parent would publicly curse a member of high school football officiating crew or get in the face of a referee at a youth soccer game would have been unthinkable.

The appearance of unruly parent-spectators at games is now so common that it has attracted analysis by sports psychologists. The leading theory is that root cause of the problem is what has been called the “helicopter parent” syndrome—a condition afflicting parents who constantly hover over every detail of their child’s life. This obsession with control is aimed at shielding offspring from anything negative ever happening in their lives, from scraping a knee during (perish the thought) unsupervised play to the embarrassment of being called for a basketball foul or the pain of losing a game.

Also blamed: parents who feed their own self-esteem by thinking they are winners if their children are winners; parents who regard their children’s games as entertainment for themselves rather than an activity that supports the development of the children; parents who think their children will be emotionally damaged if (perish the thought again) parents don’t attend every single one of their games.

Or maybe it’s just one more measure of the deterioration of civil behavior, like road rage and obscene political signs.

In any case, the subject here is merely games; unsportsmanlike conduct by spectators at those games, while disturbing, does not rise to the crisis level of inflation, climate change or the specter of nuclear war, and it shouldn’t be that hard to change. Just don’t tolerate it.

Schools and youth sports clubs and leagues should take the lead. Set a policy that obnoxious behavior by parents won’t be tolerated and publicize it. Empower officials and coaches to call out offenders at games. Tell spectators who resort to tantrums and profanity to leave.

Put the power of shaming to work. The WIAA campaign calling on parents to “cool it” at games and a proposal by Wisconsin legislators to make harassing referees a misdemeanor punishable by community service work are attention-getting moves that help define the behavior as unacceptable. Coaches should get involved and add their influence as mentors of the children of the fans in the stands to calm the naughty adult behavior.

And as for dealing with the critical shortage of referees, the example set by the Northern Ozaukee School District is worth emulation by others facing the problem. The district has been making a concerted effort to instill in its coaches, players and fans an ethic of respect for the referees who make school sports programs possible, and it’s paying off.

Andy McKee, Ozaukee High School athletic director, told the School Board last week that as a result of the respectful treatment of referees “officials are reaching out to me saying they’d love to work in Ozaukee games.”

He also said, “Be nice to your officials.” That was advice for the School Board, but surely it was meant for parents as well.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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