By Ken Reed

In a 2017 survey of 17,000 sports officials (referees) across all sports, 57 percent said sportsmanship was getting worse, while only 16 percent said it was getting better. The numbers were worse in basketball specifically, in which 65 percent of officials said sportsmanship is on the decline.

It’s not a coincidence that the decline in sportsmanship is mirrored by a decline in the number of active officials. The nation is experiencing a referee shortage, in multiple sports, and the shortage correlates closely with the decline in sportsmanship.

Officials are quitting due to the poor behavior of coaches, fans, players and parents. Referee abuse is a problem from the pro level down to the little league level.

More than 70 percent of new referees in all sports quit the job within three years, according to the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO). The chief cause? Pervasive abuse from “adults” (coaches, fans, parents).

Numerous youth and high school games have been cancelled this year due to the shortage.

The problem trickles down from the top. The behavior of NBA coaches and players is feeding the problem, as seemingly every call made in an NBA game is met with coaches and/or players whining and arguing with the official while waving their arms around in disbelief.

One step down from the NBA, boorish behavior by coaches and fans is a growing problem at the college level.

NCAA basketball official John Higgins and his family received death threats, and his roofing-and-siding business received thousands of harassing phone calls and an onslaught of negative reviews, after Kentucky lost a quarterfinal game against North Carolina during the 2017 men’s basketball tournament. Angry Kentucky fans felt Higgins was the reason their team lost.

“We’re under the highest amount of scrutiny we’ve ever been under,” said Mike Reed, a Division I official since 1994 now entering his 13th N.C.A.A. tournament.

Earlier this season, at the Mountain West men’s basketball tournament, New Mexico coach Paul Weir was given a technical foul for running down the sideline screaming at the official after a questionable call.

Soon after, New Mexico fans in the arena began chanting, “You suck, ref!”

No, what sucks in this situation is the behavior of players, coaches, fans and parents towards game officials.

Referee abuse, and the resulting shortage of officials, is a significant national sports issue and it’s not going to get better until the “adults” involved with our games improve their behavior.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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