The problem sits in the stands

Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

I sat in the stands of the soccer stadium. And I seethed.

My assignment — in 1997, as a new reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — was to cover a high school girls soccer game between Whitefish Bay and Shorewood. And I could barely concentrate on what was happening on the field because of a couple of idiots in front of me in the stands.

I couldn’t believe it. These were “adults,” presumably parents, shouting degrading insults to the opposing team’s teenage players, and screaming obscenities at the referees. They cussed and screamed, not once, not a few times, but for the entirety of the game.

It was impossible not to hear these middle-aged cretins. My blood was boiling.

As a reporter, it wasn’t my first bad run-in with people in prep sports. I would go on to deal with condescending coaches in all-star meetings and stage parents who called the paper to complain there was never enough coverage.

Parents complain there isn’t enough coverage? That has never happened to me. (Sarcasm off.)

I don’t know what the full story is with former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy or those parents caught on camera at the youth wrestling match. I just know we don’t have a new problem now; we have always had this problem. Hateful, ugly, loathsome comments coming from fans and parents in the stands toward the players and officials is an issue at every level of sports.

I’ve covered future Division I basketball players whose parents sat in the front row of their high school games, motioning to them to shoot all game, as if no other coaches or players existed.

I covered a game in Racine where the student section was so ugly to the opposing team I couldn’t help but mention it in a story, even though I knew it would make the home school angry.

I covered a game in Mukwonago where parents followed referees to their cars, complaining all the way.

Youth sports, I decided, was rife with clueless parents who, at best, didn’t understand the game they never played themselves, or, at worst, lived their uneventful lives vicariously through their children.

Then I went from observer to full immersion. I became a mom to kids who play sports.

I saw a youth coach (also a parent) re-insert a player in a game after the kid hit his head so hard he had to leave the game, dizzy. Twice. When I confronted the coach, he said he did it because the game was tied. This was fifth-grade basketball.

I’ve seen parents stalk the sidelines, calling out their kid by name, overriding the coach with their own instructions. The players who became distracted, and then confused and conflicted. Do what the coach wants and deal with parents at home? Or do what the parents want?

Every game — every game — I hear parents whine about calls, or what they perceive to be non-calls, and I sometimes yell: “You should have had that, ref! You’re making a whopping $15 a game!”

I can’t help it. I’m done with the parents; I’ve been done with them for years.

I stay as far away from them as possible when I go to my kids’ sporting events.

At all times.

In all games.

Unless I get to know them (just a few), I can’t trust them.

I avoid the middle of the stands. I sit on the edges. I walk around the perimeter. I hide in the corners and put on my headphones. Anything to tune out the endless complaining.

I even try to park my car away from everyone after I once heard a man lambaste two kids in the back seat of a car at Uihlein Soccer Park, in what only can be described as verbal abuse.

I know this has made me look anti-social, or even aloof. I don’t care.

Here’s my thinking:

If you have never officiated a game …

Or coached a kid …

If you have never played a sport …

Or if it has been decades since you put yourself on the line of competition, why are you even talking?

Other than to encourage, to be positive, to be uplifting?

I really don’t get it. That’s not just my child out there, that’s a group of kids and teenagers just trying to navigate their way to adulthood in a healthy way. Also, those kids on the other team are my kid’s future collegiate classmates, coworkers and community leaders.

Are they not, in a way, all of our kids out there? I’m rooting for all of them.

And without the refs? We have no games.

Look. I’ve messed up. I’ve failed, too. I’ve said too much on those drives home from games and practices. I’ve criticized and second-guessed. After investing thousands of dollars in my kids’ sports, and untold hours of driving them to practices and games, organizing my life around the youth sports schedule, it takes herculean restraint to hug a child or high-five a teen and just say, “good job,” win or lose. And to say, “respect your coaches and don’t talk back to officials.”

But my goodness, can we hold up a mirror to our histrionics – and see what our kids see, and listen to what our kids hear, and understand?

We need to stop.

This has gone longer than Nickel’s career, though berating officials after games was rare in the 1980s, but, based on my own observation, not unheard of.

This was a topic of discussion on Steve Scaffidi’s show on WTMJ in Milwaukee Thursday morning. One suggestion was made to ban excessively obnoxious parents from games. The problem is that while the home school can do that, since presumably high school administrators know their own school’s parents when they see them often, that’s harder for the opposing high school to recognize parents who aren’t theirs.

Scaffidi said we have become a nation of complainers. I’m not sure about that. I do think that as kids get into travel and all-year sports their parents’ sense of perspective can become warped. Youth sports does indeed cost parents “thousands of dollars in my kids’ sports, and untold hours of driving them to practices and games,: requiring parents to organize their life around practices, games and tournaments.

And to what end? According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, out of 8 million high school athetes, 480,000 of them — 6 percent — go on to play college sports. That’s one player per 15-player basketball team. Less than 2 percent of high school athletes play at an NCAA Division I school that offers scholarships.

Parents acting like two-year-olds at games creates a self-perpetuating cycle when it comes to high school officiating. There are nationwide reports of officials getting out of officiating because they’re tired of verbal abuse wherever they go. That probably results in worse officiating, which leads to more verbal abuse, which leads to officials leaving the game, which leads …

I’m not sure what you do about this. As I’ve written here before, we decided early on that we were not going to be those parents. I might complain briefly about a call, but coaches and parents don’t grasp the sport if they believe games are decided by individual officials’ calls. Kids don’t learn anything good when their parents intervene with their coaches over playing time. We wanted our kids to learn about the intangibles of sports — being on a team, having a role on a team (which may or may not the role you want), sportsmanship, etc.

 

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One thought on “The problem sits in the stands

  1. I so agree with Ms. Nickel.  It is sad, disgusting, embarrassing, unnecessary, so wrong and a such an unfortunate commentary

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