Heckling a referee or umpire for a bad call is a regular occurrence at many sporting events and is usually done in good fun, but a series of violent incidents towards officials in the last few years recently came to head on April 27 when Ricardo Portillo, an amateur soccer ref died after being punched by a 17-year-old player.
Perhaps even more shocking, a 17-year-old amateur official in Valencia, Spain was beaten by a police officer so brutally that he lost his spleen and three pints of blood.
While heckling other players has been mostly stamped out at the high school level, most of these violent incidents occurred at high school games.
“I think because people tend to watch these big time college and professional games on television, they see how the coaches and players work the officials. It gets a bit sensationalized and they tolerate this behavior, so the kids and the parents think it’s okay to behave that way (by heckling officials),” Alpena basketball official and baseball coach Phil Schultz said.
Alpena High has attempted to curtail heckling and other unsportsman-like behavior with the Community Helping Athletes Maintain Positive Sportsmanship or CHAMPS program. This nine-year old program works to create a positive atmosphere at all Alpena sporting events.
Alpena sporting fans are undoubtedly familiar with the CHAMPS sportsmanship announcement which opens every Alpena home game, but many may not be aware of the other ways the program has tried to combat heckling and other unsportsman-like activities.
CHAMPS give away yearly $250 scholarships to a male and female athlete that best exemplifies a positive sporting attitude. The program also gives away T-shirts and banners to fans showing positivity during games.
Schultz has a unique perspective on heckling due to his dual position as a coach and an official.
“The way I look at it is that it (heckling) is often a spontaneous thing. If somebody disagrees with a call I make and they say something once, I tolerate it. People are going to disagree and get upset at games. But if it’s a continuous problem I just say that’s enough and get them out of there,” he said.
It’s important to remove these persistent sources of heckling from the situation. Often, their behavior will get other observers riled up.
“If you tolerate that continuous heckling, it’s likely to insight a reaction from other fans and you get more of a mob mentality,” Schultz said.
Much of the violence against officials has been at soccer games, but it has not been limited to soccer. Baseball riots, such as when the Giants won the World Series in 2010 , occurred when mob mentality gripped fans in the throes of excitement.
These riots, while not a result of heckling against referees, are an example of the ways sporting events can quickly get out of control.
“(Violence against officials) would probably take a parent or a player that is extremely competitive and lets their emotion get in the way. Some people have that nature, that competitive nature that they can’t control,” basketball and football official Cory Davis said.
Davis has been an official for 16 years and has grown a thick skin towards heckling.
“You (as an official) have to understand that it (heckling) comes with the territory. There’s an imaginary line drawn on what’s accepted. As soon as its crossed, you have to take action, ejecting the person or calling school officials to get them out,” he said.
There is, of course, a long history of playful heckling in the world of amateur and professional sports. Chants such as “hey batter, batter ” have become legendary. Charles Barkley, then a member of the Phoenix Suns, bought courtside seats for a heckler in the 1993 NBA Finals so that the heckler could taunt Chicago Bulls players.
Shouting matches between baseball coaches and officials have become something of a running gag in the world of sports, television and movies. The 1988 comedy “Naked Gun” turns this cliche on its head by having umpires heckling and arguing with each other.
While it may be all laughs in the movies, high school coaches have to clamp down on that kind of behavior and teach their players to respect the officials even if they don’t agree with their calls.
“As a coach, I tell my kids that we’ll deal with it (a bad call from an official) and that they’re job is to play and represent your team and your school. I will react to certain calls if I don’t agree with them to protect my players. But I won’t persist or disrespect the umpire,” Schultz said.
Emotions often run high during high school sporting events, especially if parents, family members and friends are attending. Logical thinking often becomes difficult and calls against a player, no matter how logical or correct they may be from the official’s perspective, can appear vindictive.
Frustrated fans often shout “call it both ways” if they feel one team is being picked on or “let the kids play” if they feel excessive fouls are being called, even when the fouls called are designed to keep players safe from harm.
“A lot of the time parents are hoping that their kid is going to go on to play college ball or even make it to a professional level, so they get a little bit of tunnel vision. They don’t see the bigger picture and instead focus on one player or a team,” Schultz said.
Fans in the stands have a wider angle view of the game and can spot fouls that officials may miss. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget that officials don’t have this view and that blatantly obvious fouls spotted from the stands may not be within the officials line of sight.
“They can’t see the game from my angle or perceive the situation the way I do and they may disagree with how I see it,” Schultz said.
In spite of work from organizations like CHAMPS in high schools around the nation, violence against officials continues to rise.
“Truly, it’s always been an accepted part of the game and I think that it always will be,” Davis said.