Fans won’t see many slam dunks or three-point shots at the Saturday morning rec league basketball games.
They will see plenty of enthusiastic boys and girls scrambling for loose balls, shooting layups and learning fundamentals of the game. That enthusiasm can go too far, especially if someone sees future NBA stars instead of grade-school players who are just learning how to dribble.
“The level of intensity has increased,” said Chuck Kempf, the city’s director of Parks, Recreation and Civic Facilities.
Kempf is speaking of the adults watching the games, not the young players on the court. It’s a referee’s job to blow the whistle or throw the flag, but sometimes the unsportsmanlike conduct comes from parents, relatives or other adults. In some cases, sports officials absorb verbal abuse from fans who get carried away and forget that it’s just a game.
Last year, the city canceled a second session of its Little Ballers league at the REC Center because of difficulty controlling aggressive and inappropriate behavior from the stands. This year, the city hired an off-duty police officer to keep the peace.
“It seemed like a really absurd thing to do,” Kempf said. “We’re trying to protect people. We’ve had a few incidents.”
To Kempf’s knowledge, no referees in St. Joseph have experienced any physical altercation with fans. But he’s seen firsthand how officials are sometimes berated or confronted, with some fans telling referees that they’ll meet them in the parking lot or that they know where they live.
“It’s very intimidating,” Kempf said. “We’ve had several employees complain to supervisors.”
The problem isn’t isolated to St. Joseph. In fact, it might be worse in other locations.
In Washington state last fall, parents stormed the field and chased referees into the parking lot after a youth football game. The National Association of Sports Officials estimates that 70 percent of new referees in all sports quit the job in three years. One of the major reasons, according to the association’s findings, is unruly parents.
Last week, Missouri lawmakers heard testimony on a bill that would expand legal protections for sports officials in the state. House Bill 1809, if approved, would give “special victim” status to sports officials, putting them on par with police, highway and transit workers and corrections officers. An assault on a special victim is bumped up to a Class A misdemeanor.
“This is becoming an increasing problem,” said Rep. Brad Pollitt, a Republican from Sedalia who sponsored the bill. “We’re having more and more trouble getting men and women to officiate these contests.”
The bill wouldn’t address verbal abuse and is limited to referees and sports officials who are sanctioned under a state or sports governing body. That means a teenage referee trying to make a few dollars at youth basketball games wouldn’t be covered.
But Pollitt, a former school superintendent who coached basketball, believes the measure does more than elevate penalties. It sends a strong message that a sports official is entitled to a level of respect that’s sometimes missing in today’s games.
“I’ve seen the best and the worst of sportsmanship,” he said.
One sports official in St. Joseph said things can be heated, but he thinks most parents keep the game in perspective.
“You just let it go. Let it go in one ear and out the other,” said Jim Lower, who was refereeing youth basketball at the REC Center. “I’d like to help try and teach kids a little bit about sports and so forth. So it’s just been a really enjoyable experience for me.”
Kempf believes most children have a positive experience in youth sports and are immune to trouble in the stands. He noted that some sports are better than others, with volleyball players and parents displaying an especially high level of sportsmanship.
The games will go on, but he’s encouraging parents to remember that the ultimate goal isn’t a college scholarship, but a chance to have fun and break a sweat.
“Your kid may not play past the sixth or seventh grade, but hopefully those are good memories,” he said. “I would hope that their experience is positive.”