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Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

Turn on SportsCenter any morning and while you sip your coffee I’ll guarantee you something. Within the first 10 minutes, a big-time coach will berate an official, drawing the attention of the crowd and the ratings-obsessed anchors. It may all be part of the big-time game, but as the problematic behavior saturates our collective consciousness, it trickles down. Officials at all levels have to deal with it, whether they want to or not.

The athletes we often officiate are still in their formative years and you may wonder if our culture has gone off the rails and if there is a way to get this rude genie back in the bottle. Have we just steamrollered past civility and is there no hope, especially in the athletics arena?

It’s tough to speak for a whole society, but there are officials and administrators who have drawn a line in the sand. They have returned the focus to one of the game’s original purposes — to teach young people about sportsmanship. Along the way, an intended consequence has been an increase in the number of ejections of coaches and players by officials.

“I believe very passionately that sportsmanship is the key to athletics and that we can win this,” said Brian Gessner, the state commissioner of officials for the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) since January 2018. “To do it, we need the commitment of everyone involved: referees, players, coaches, administrators and fans.”

The issue goes beyond eroding civility

The issue goes beyond a discussion of culture and eroding civility. Across the country, the shortage of scholastic sports officials has reached a crisis level. Many believe that what has become acceptable in our culture — rudeness, bad language and open displays of hostility — is at the root of the shortage. People just don’t want to sign up for abuse.

“It is why we are losing refs across the country and because of it we now have a shortage of youth officials,” said Brian Barlow, a soccer referee from Tulsa, Okla. “I’ve always believed that if you want to make a new and fresh path then you have to make a bold statement.”

Barlow received a deluge of media coverage when he started the Facebook page “Offside” and invited people to send examples of bad behavior of adult fans at youth sporting events. The page caught fire and went viral and Barlow has become a folk hero and the face of the civility movement.

His efforts may have caught the public’s eye but addressing sportsmanship today needs a systemic and measured approach. That’s what Gessner has put together in Arizona.

“We wanted to especially address controllable ejections,” Gessner explained. “We’re talking about the use of profanity, fighting, spitting, punching and kicking. We’re also talking about inappropriate sideline behavior from the coaches.”

In the 2016-17 school year in Arizona there were 725 recorded ejections in all sports, and that increased to 905 in 2017-18. The AIA began to zero in on accurate and timely reports to get a handle on what was happening. It can be tedious but, as we know, the devil is in the details. If you don’t know exactly what you are up against it is very difficult to address it correctly.

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“I’m a colonel’s kid and I was brought up with many of the expectations and values held in the military,” Gessner said. “I am a stickler for detail and I learned from the careful deliberation instilled in me during my time in the financial services industry.”

Gessner examined where he could best effect change and applied his no-nonsense approach. Behavior can be difficult to understand, but using existing rules and expectations gave him the tools to make a difference. He relied on  enforcing the rules in place and created an accountability system to make sure officials did their part.

“It is not complicated. There is a way to hold people accountable during a game. It all starts with communication,” Gessner said.

Lay out expectations before the game starts

Communication starts before the games with the coaches and administrators. It means laying out exactly what the expectations are in terms of behavior and how it will be addressed.

Keep the lines of communication open

Once the game starts, the communication needs to continue.

“If a coach is starting to get heated, our officials are instructed to communicate with him. The officials need to genuinely listen to his concerns. They also need to let him know to be mindful of his behavior,” Gessner said.

When effective, communication works toward developing relationships, it can circumvent problems before they start.

“When I was an official and I knew I had kicked one and a coach questioned me, I’d let him know that I knew I hadn’t made my best call. That type of honesty builds respect,” Gessner said.

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Don’t let things go too far

Once an official begins a dialogue with a coach, an expectation has been established. If in spite of the communication, the coach continues to ratchet it up, it is time for the official to act.

“If the coach continues, we are going to give him a warning, but we are only going to do it one time,” Gessner said. “It is important that the warning is clear and that the coach understands the gravity of the situation. If he continues despite that, we’re going to penalize him and if he continues after that, he will get ejected.”

The coaches know this is the procedure and they are reminded before each game. The power of the procedure is in applying it consistently and the willingness of the officials to carry it out.

Strangely enough, Gessner credits his IT department for being the backbone of the process. Those personnel designed a reporting system that captured and quantified game analysis.

“In the past, our reports were completely manual. Human nature being what it is, some officials would eject a coach but wouldn’t get around to the paperwork,” Gessner said. “Our IT department created this unbelievable reporting program. It is very user friendly and now reports can be done on a device right after the game. Eighty-five percent of the report can be completed by drop-down menus. The IT department and I had the same vision.”

Gessner can keep up with ejections almost as they happen. Now all ejections get recorded. This increase in reporting, along with the expectations Gessner set with his officials, has resulted initially in the increase in the AIA’s ejection rate. It is hard to tell if the increase is because of more accurate reporting, more officials following the procedure, or a combination of factors.

The AIA limits its reporting to ejections, but Gessner points out that detailed reports for each ejection are submitted immediately after games. Players or coaches who are ejected are suspended for the next game and if they are ejected a second time, they are benched for two games. A third ejection results in suspension for the remainder of the season. Some school districts have tightened the belt even more and doubled these penalties.

Gessner’s stats back up his talk. Through October 2018 there were 267 ejections, with 257 of them coming in football. Those football ejections are up from 172 in 2017, but the new software recording system may have something to do with that. Soccer had six ejections and girls’ volleyball had four. There was a season suspension in football for a third-time offender.

The AIA has also focused its energies on consistent evaluations. Gessner has an evaluation team for every sport and they’ve set a goal of having every official evaluated in the next two years. It is all about developing a system that values procedures and accountability. That, and getting buy-in at all levels, both by those who Gessner supervises and those who are above him on the organizational chart.

“My executive director, David Hines, supports what we’re doing 100 percent,” Gessner said.

Not everyone is perfect and not every official has bought in to the system. Some are indifferent to the idea of valuing communication and others are confrontational and combative. Human nature is what it is, and addressing performance when it isn’t up to par is a crucial part of the system.

“You know, some will make mistakes, get corrected and accept the criteria and grow. Those officials will get better schedules and continue on,” Gessner said. “Those who don’t will stagnate and wash out. Having to discipline an official is the most difficult part of my job.”

Arizona isn’t the only state taking on the issue of sportsmanship. North Carolina identified sportsmanship and the lack thereof as a major issue. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) implemented a series of sportsmanship mandates in 2017 with the hope of not only getting a handle on behavior, but also on developing better communication with coaches and administrators.

North Carolina also identified the loss of officials and the difficulty in recruiting new officials into the field. Mark Dreibelbis, the associate commissioner of the NCHSAA, examined the ejection rate over a period of years and saw that it was on a sharp incline. He addressed it by developing a series of protocols that varied by sport but had two key points:

  • Only the head coach can question a call.
  • There will be zero tolerance for inappropriate language and profanity.

This year he also added a protocol about postgame interaction between officials and coaches so that reviews are formal and thought out rather than coming from an impulsive and emotional coach.

“Things are going well and we are seeing improvement in the area of sportsmanship. It took a lot and it was a major initiative. Change of this sort takes time,” Dreibelbis said.

He encourages his officials to focus on sideline control and, like Gessner, to focus on communication. The mandate of letting only the head coach question calls helped, but there is much more to the process to really make it work.

“We want our officials to get respect, but in order to do that they need to give respect as well,” Dreibelbis said.

Train administration

Since the mandate, ejections initially increased, but now, as the policies are being consistently enforced, they are decreasing. The referees have been empowered to carry out the mandates and they are imposing the proper penalties.

“I can tell that coaches and administrators have taken it to heart because we aren’t getting appeals around the ejections. People are getting in line and are accepting this as the new norm,” Dreibelbis said.

North Carolina is recruiting hard for new officials using a media blitz to market its positions. The feedback received on its sportsmanship mandates has been positive, even from the coaches and administrators that they targeted.

“When we set out to do this we got feedback from people who wondered how in the world we were going to do it. Well, just like the commercials  — we just did it!” Dreibelbis said.

In Alabama, Steve Savarese, the executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, has also reported that ejections have decreased after sportsmanship was emphasized. He credits his schools, coaches and athletic directors for getting on board and working to exercise better behavior at events. He knows that if the shortage of officials is to turn around, people have to get better at treating each other with more respect.

“Sure, we still have coaches who, we might say, get a bit over-passionate when they are working, but the vast majority of them are remorseful and apologetic when things have calmed down,” Savarese said. “You know the goal is to set a good example for the fans and students, and I’m proud of the work that’s been done. Leadership is the key.”

AIA, under the leadership of Gessner, supports an aggressive recruitment plan and with the current sportsmanship focus in place is seeing success. Gessner believes the success will continue and the effects of what they are doing will be cumulative.

“It can be a difficult thing to measure because it’s more of a qualitative analysis than a quantitative one. We’ve seen an improvement in the first year and we are planning for that to continue each year,” Gessner said.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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