"All you, blue, all you!"
As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I wanted them back. The umpire on the bases in the high school softball game had clearly blown the call: tight score, bases loaded, two outs, ball hit to left field for what looked like an RBI single … except that the left fielder quickly threw to third to beat the runner by a step. Unfortunately, the ump was trying to get out of the way and didn't see the force, and the home plate ump refused to get involved, so the run scored, and the next batter hit a grand slam off my daughter. Which is when I made my own bad call.
I knew better. These things happen, just like they did in Cleveland when the umpires didn't acknowledge an A's home run that would've tied the game, just like they do every night in every state at every level. I've seen enough games to realize that bad decisions are like bad hops. Dems da breaks.
It doesn't matter if the official is a teenager making $20 a game, or a man or woman moonlighting as much for love of the game as for money, or Joe West, who's been working major league games since 1977. It's a tough, usually thankless job, but somebody has to do it. We often hear, "The most important thing is to get it right," and while that is very important -- the more replays the better -- it's not the most important thing. First and foremost, we owe the umps and zebras and refs a foundation of respect and a debt of gratitude. There would be no games without their commitment.
That's worth mentioning at this time of high visibility for officials, when the NHL and NBA are in their postseasons, baseball is in its ascendancy, and spring school and collegiate sports are heating up. On the list of headlines on ESPN.com on Thursday, a few spots below "Indians top A's after blown call," was this one: "Utah teen charged in death of soccer ref."
On April 27 in a recreational league soccer match outside of Salt Lake City, authorities say, a 17-year-old goalie punched 46-year-old Ricardo Portillo in the head after the ref penalized him for pushing an opposing player. After hospitalization, Portillo lapsed into a coma and died on May 4. A game that was hardly a matter of life and death became one.
There may be no way of knowing what brought the unnamed player to that tragic moment of anger. But here's what does lead to a breakdown in respect for authority: coaches who think it's OK to ride the refs; fans who feel it's cool to yell at officials all the time; the constant cries of "Call 'em both ways!" and "Open your eyes!"; the confusion of professional sports with youth sports.
Contempt for officials is nothing new. In 1906 a singer named Bob Roberts recorded "The Umpire Is a Most Unhappy Man." But there are two converging media streams that seem to be adding to the turbulence. One is the criticism of officials, be it missed home runs, or unfair penalties, or control of the game. The other is the almost prurient interest in bad behavior at sporting events. It kind of feels like sports civilization is crumbling.
The death in Utah hit Jim Thompson particularly hard. He is the CEO of the Positive Coaching Alliance, which he founded at Stanford University in 1998 to help transform the culture of youth sports. "I feel for both families," he says. "It's the ultimate price to pay for a win-at-all-costs mentality."
Since its founding, the PCA has grown into a network that reaches 1 million athletes and 100,000 coaches, though that's still only 2.5 percent of all the participants in youth sports in this country. The foundation of PCA workshops is the phrase "Honoring The Game," and the sessions encourage respect for the acronym R-O-O-T-S: Rules, Opponents, Officials, Teammates, Self.
When it comes to dealing with officials, PCA has a few suggestions for coaches: introduce the officials to the parents before a game, designate a parent to monitor spectator behavior, have the players practice their responses to a bad call, find a self-control routine (like counting backward from 100), and approach the officials deferentially if there's an important difference of opinion.
"The best way to teach respect," says Thompson, "is to show respect." Thompson also recommends thanking officials after a game, and complimenting them if they've done a good job.
Some of them don't, though, and a few of them make things worse by mistaking arrogance for authority. "Just think of them as bad weather," says Thompson. "You still have to play in it, and it doesn't do you much good to complain."
The vast majority of officials are just striving to be fair to both sides, to get it right. And if you're lucky, you'll encounter one who goes above and beyond. Same daughter, different sport: field hockey. At halftime of one of her games, the lead referee came over to the spectator side of the field to ask if there were any questions about the calls in the first half, or about the arcane rules of the sport in general. The session was both edifying and disarming -- nobody questioned any calls in the second half.
As for the ump who blew the call in the softball game, I could see he felt as bad about missing the call as I did about yelling. He actually ran to his car after the 10-7 game ended, ahead of what he might have imagined to be an angry mob. In reality, my daughter and her teammates were already over it by the time he got there.
It's not all you, blue. It's all us.