Can you think of many occupations in this day and age where the public is allowed to scream or curse at you as you are working and it be considered the norm? While it’s been seen before someone thinking they can do a job better than someone with experience or training, we typically don’t have the yelling or threats thrown at us in a public setting.
Many of us have been there before if we disagree with a referee in mild acts. We turn our television to the station to watch our favorite college or professional sports team. A whistle is blown or flag thrown or better yet, no call at all and we yell out “you missed the call” as if someone is listening to us.
From our comfortable recliners we believe we have the best view of a game and feel no one could see the play as well as we do. We can’t believe the official messed up that call. It is in this moment we believe we know better than someone that has taken classes, exams and every year is updated on new rule changes within each sport. Better than someone standing right on a field with the best view in the middle of the play.
This comfortable feeling from our homes has carried over into live action in today’s youth sports. Kids youth softball, baseball, wrestling, basketball, soccer and football that travels up into the high school varsity level is seeing a number of officials calling it quits citing fan behavior as the number one reason for leaving.
With more and more videos going viral online each year of officials being verbally or even physically attacked by fans, coaches and even players at times it isn’t hard to see why there has been a decline in available officials across the state.
Rick Eckles has been a licensed official for wrestling matches and football games all across Iowa, Missouri and Georgia. Throughout his over 20 years officiating he has covered youth, junior high, high school and even college matches and has firsthand witnessed the negative change slowing progressing.
“The culture has changed from what it was 25 years ago,” said Eckles. “I started officiating shortly after high school and you didn’t have the profanity thrown from the stands that you do now or the parents trying to confront the officials after or during a game. It’s just a different culture.”
When asking how he has defied the odds of continuing in this profession for the length of time he has, “It’s been a slow change for me. If you started in this year as a referee I can imagine exactly why a new official would say I’m done. It doesn’t pay enough for this kind of abuse.”
Eckles began officiating as a side job and now realizes he is losing money when leaving to cover a wrestling meet or football game. When not leaving middle of the afternoon to travel to a meet or game, he can be found in his chiropractor’s office in Centerville sometimes working on those very same players he sees on a field in a game.
“I became an official because I love the sports,” said Eckles. “I love to be able to give back still. If it continues the way it has been though I have already considered exiting football. I would stick with wrestling because the fans are a little better generally.”
“It’s rare to have fans confront us in wrestling,” Eckles continued. “It happens of course but it happens less than in a football game.”
Social media has played a large part in the sports world today. With nearly every fan holding a cellphone with video capabilities, it doesn’t take long for a video to be uploaded online with targets on an official’s back for making what the fan believes to be a bad call.
“If a video goes viral and it’s a kid in his first year as an official it can be really hard on his confidence,” said Eckles. “Half the time when you see things like this it is a missed call. We are human. We miss calls. We try not to as nobody hates a missed call like an official but unfortunately it happens.”
“When we hear someone in the stands yelling out we are trying to cheat a team and let the other team win it’s hard,” he continued. “We honestly don’t care who wins or loses. We are just there to make sure the game is run properly. A missed call is just that, a missed call.”
Eckles has been seen officiating on Wayne’s football field in the past as he has also covered games locally in Moravia, Seymour, Mormon Trail, Centerville, Knoxville, Albia and Chariton. He noted while varsity games aren’t often officiated by locals in their hometown, junior varsity games generally are.
“If it’s a district game I’m probably not going wherever Centerville would be going,” he stated. “I probably won’t be where Wayne or Moravia is either.”
Iowa runs with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which writes the rules and regulations for competition for most high school sports in the U.S. Every year the rules and guidelines for sports are tweaked once the coaches and officials have submitted their suggestions.
“The biggest concern is safety, especially in football,” said Eckles. “Every year there are multiple changes in football and as we follow the new rule changes, there are times when a fan disagrees with a call and it’s simply because they don’t know the new rules.”
“The horse-collar tackle rule is one that has been tweaked at least four or five times, “ he stated. “Every year we have to take our tests and make sure we know the newest rules and unless fans are keeping up on these yearly changes they aren’t informed of the new rules.”
Eckles remembers back 10 to 15 years ago almost never having to remove an individual from a sporting event.
“Now it’s three or four times a season we have to have an athletic director ask a fan to watch the profanity or vulgarity or be removed,” said Eckles. “The fan ejections are way up and I don’t know if the fans are worse or if the officials are less willing to put up with it.”
In his 20 plus years officiating, Eckles has personally ejected one coach for a technicality issue of being in an unrestricted zone and two fans while in Georgia for behavior.
Within the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IAHSS) officials grade each school and athletic event on sportsmanship. A rating is given during boys athletic competitions based on sportsmanship of players, coaches and spectators and submitted back to the IAHSS. While the girls association in Iowa doesn’t have ratings, their expectations of spectator conduct is outlined on their website.
Sportsmanship ratings for Wayne boy’s basketball, football and wrestling for the previous 2018-2019 school year as reported by officials to the IAHSS reveal nearly excellent scores. No fan ejections were noted in boys athletics however one fan ejection in a girls varsity basketball game for the same school year was recorded even without a sportsmanship rating given.
“New rules are going into effect to make a sporting event a better experience for everybody,” said Eckles. “Ninety percent of the fans aren’t the ones using vulgarity and abusive language. They are there to watch a ballgame. For the most part they get tired of listening to that person yelling too.”
“The one guy I threw out during a game in Georgia, after he left the crowd gave me a standing ovation,” Eckles stated. “In a youth game once there was a young boy hanging his head and I asked him what was wrong and he looked at me with tears in his eyes and apologized saying it was his dad in the stands that was yelling, causing a scene. I told that kid that wasn’t at all his problem and to just play his game and have fun. That’s sad.”
A letter titled “Dear Mom and Dad: Cool it,” in partnership with the NFHS details the declining numbers making it harder to fill those positions with a shrinking pool of officials available.
“If you have someone from your fan base ejected, you with the rest of the fan base should be embarrassed,” said Eckles. “If you’re not embarrassed you might be part of the problem. If you aren’t doing anything to stop it then you might be part of the problem.”
Eckles acknowledges it can be tough to confront an upset spectator in the stands. With emotions running high, he considers this behavior the same as an adult bully.
“It will take the fans and schools policing their own fan base if it’s going to get better,” he said. “It’s easier for fans to address one another than it is for me. The person’s already mad at me so it doesn’t go as well.”
It was after a recent eye-opening event that reached a new level during a small-town football game, Eckles questioned how much longer he would continue in this field. An event Eckles was not personally involved in, however members of his assigning group of officials were.
“People every year always ask me how much longer I’m going to keep refereeing and I usually tell them until it’s not fun anymore,” he said. “Guess what, with all this stuff it’s not as much fun as it used to be so I’m getting close. If I have to start wearing body armor I’m done,”
“I don’t want you to think though every game and everywhere we have an issue,” he begins. “It’s probably less than two percent of the time we have to deal with this stuff. You just don’t expect to have those kind of unruly fans or crowd problems in small-town Iowa.”
“If we are going to change the culture it is going to start with self-accountability,” said Eckles. “We are out there doing our job because of our love for the game, not for the money or to choose who will win or lose. We want the game to be administered correctly and it’s all for the love of the game.”
If anyone is interested in becoming an official you can visit the IAHSS website found at https://www.iahsaa.org/officials/ for more information.
“We certainly have a shortage but the pay is getting better for an official, if you don’t mind the occasional abuse,” he added.