Editor’s Note: This column is written by Ben Kaufmann, who spearheads the County Courier’s weekly sports coverage.
On January 19th, I was covering the Milton at Fairfax boys basketball game when alleged racist comments from Fairfax fans triggered an ugly postgame scene with high school athletes and parents angrily confronting each other. I told all who asked that it was the worst incident I could remember in my 17+ years of covering sports in Vermont.
That incident only held the top spot for 12 days. I wasn’t present for the literal brawl at a January 31st junior high basketball game in Alburgh which resulted in a man losing his life due to a medical event suffered shortly after being involved in the melee, but the video I saw was abhorrent.
Although it’s clearly escalating, shameful behavior at youth athletic events is hardly a new phenomenon. Three years ago I wrote a story about fan behavior being a major cause of referee shortages across the state and I was hardly the first person to write about it. For some time now, grown adults have deemed it perfectly acceptable to harass each other and game officials at youth sporting events. I must admit, I quickly fell in love with the video of a Wisconsin PA announcer telling fans to shut up and, if they were so sure they could do better than the referees, to sign up themselves.
But I’m not using this space to talk to those who are doing the shouting. Frankly, if you’re the type of person who thinks your role as a fan at a youth sporting event is to shout negatively at the children playing or at the underpaid officials or at other parents watching their kids, I can’t imagine anything I say in this space will encourage you to be a decent human. If you ever find yourself, an adult, yelling at a 16-year-old in this fashion, you should be seeking help from someone other than a part-time sportswriter. There’s no scenario in which you should be leaving the house to go to your child’s game and return to it with a felony charge.
No, this space is for the “good apples”. Those of you who are fired up that your town is being dragged through the mud and comment on stories about fans being banned with “A couple of jerks are ruining it for the rest of us!” Those of you who just want to be left alone to sit quietly and offer an occasional cheer for your players.
Well, I’m here to tell you that there’s no more being left alone and sitting quietly, not if you really care about how your community is viewed and not if you genuinely care that others feel safe and welcome visiting your gym, rink, or field. We have a real problem with a large number of people behaving poorly at youth sporting events and if you’re not one of them, your two choices are to be part of the solution or part of the problem. By being part of the solution, you need to accept responsibility for your community and commit to not sitting silently while your neighbors ruin it for everyone else.
There’s a little grace given to head coaches to question game officials and there should be (Though, to be clear, I’d like to see a lot less grace given to players and assistant coaches to do the same. If you’re putting “interact with referees” on the job description for your assistant coaches, you’re coaching wrong and wasting your resources). There is absolutely zero reason for anyone else to be shouting at referees and less than zero reasons for anyone else to be shouting at a student-athlete. If you feel your child is unsafe on the court/ice/field, take them off and go home and address it in writing with the proper administrators once you’ve cooled off. Screaming or (I can’t believe this needs to be said) throwing a punch, is unlikely to ease tensions.
So, what can you do as one of the good ones who are sick and tired of hearing negative things about your community or even being banned from games because of the bad apples? You can speak up! Depending on your comfort level and perhaps your relationship with the parent next to you screaming constantly at the participants, say something to them to let them know they’re behaving inappropriately. In many cases, those yelling don’t realize they’re yelling or how they sound to the people around them. And if you don’t feel comfortable saying something directly or if that effort has been unsuccessful, find a school administrator and let them know. Athletic Directors are so busy during games that they often don’t hear much from the stands, but if you let them know what you’re hearing it gives them the chance to intervene or simply make themselves more visible.
And if that doesn’t work? Move. I mean it, get up and move away from that bad apple. Go sit with the other team’s fans and maybe make a new friend. If every single person who says “A few jerks are ruining it for the rest of us!” moved away from the jerk, it would send a clear message to that person and make it a whole lot more visible to administrators just who caused the problems. In all cases, leave the damn field after the game and address any concerns in writing when you get home – you’ll accomplish nothing in the heat of the moment except make it a whole lot more likely that you’ll end up in the newspaper in a bad way.
I’ve seen enough of “I didn’t say anything, why am I banned?” If those around you are harassing children and referees and you don’t say anything, you should be banned. On the court, the players and coaches are demanding each other be held accountable. Just what example are you setting by refusing to do the same?