CANTON Last month, The Suburbanite detailed the ongoing discussion within Ohio high school sports about sportsmanship concerns expressed by the Ohio High School Athletic Association and its outgoing president, Dr. Dan Ross.
Among Ross’ concerns were the causes of a spike in ejections from games across all OHSAA-sponsored sports the past two years and in those conversations, OHSAA officials noted that the atmosphere at games, meets and matches has sparked some concerns expressed by game officials to the organization.
Danny Kleckner and Brian Harrell are two local officials who regularly work games in the Suburbanite’s coverage area and with more than 60 years of combined officiating experience between them. They’ve seen much of what Ross described in his comments on sportsmanship.
"I do softball, football and basketball … I started in 1967, so I’ve seen a bit change over the years," Kleckner said. "I think one of the driving forces behind the sportsmanship issue is parents thinking their child is going to be the next LeBron James, or other successful athlete … keeping in mind that in high school sports, 2 percent (of athletes) get college scholarship offers, but they (parents) are so driven that it’s changed the concept of why their children play the sport."
Harrell noted, as Jackson football coach Tim Budd did last month speaking on the issue, that there is also a safety component to the rise in ejections, as sports such as soccer have rules that mandate ejection if a player violates a rule on, for example, a dangerous tackles that earn two yellow cards.
He recalled a baseball game last season in which he ejected a player for an unsafe slide at second base, according to OHSAA rules, only to have the coach for that player come onto the field, confront him and when informed it was according to the letter of the rules, the coach commented that if that was the case, he was going to have plenty more ejections that season.
Those comments, Harrell believes, underscore a sportsmanship angle to the safety issue.
"I do see that, but I also see the sportsmanship issue with coaches not willing to change the way that they coach and teach," Harrell said. "Football, they’re trying to lower the strike angle and lower helmet contact. They’re (coaches) getting better, but there are some who … you’re just going to have to eject them, because they’re just not going to change the way they do things."
Both Kleckner and Harrell have stories of confrontations they’ve had with coaches and fans during and even after games. Kleckner recalled high school softball tournament game in Hudson last season in which a grandfather of one of the players followed the umpires to the parking lot after the game, uttering profanities and accusing them of "cheating the kids" in some way.
Harrell’s story is a bit more violent, as in 2006, he was struck by a parent who came onto the field during a game to dispute a call. The parent who hit Harrell was arrested and the case was later resolved in court, with the parent banned from games because of the incident.
Kleckner insists the neither he nor any officials he knows ever go into a game looking to cheat a player in any way. While fans and coaches may disagree, Kleckner believes that bad calls or missed calls are more likely traced to human error. He noted that the demographics of officials in the area aren’t exactly trending in a younger direction.
"Our football class for new officials this year in Akron has four officials … that’s not good. We don’t have many young officials getting into officiating and what I don’t understand is why we can’t get young athletes to playing whatever the sport may be to stay connected to it in some way. "Basketball, the last few years, the numbers for officials have gone up and that’s been beneficial, but if you look around at football, basketball, baseball or softball associations and look at the ages of officials … we have a number of people that are still doing officiating that are in their 70s. That’s not a good thing."
Simply put, older officials aren’t able to move as well around the field or play or see as well as they once could, so having younger officials getting into the business would be a positive. Harrell cited figures showing that among new officials, about 50 percent stick with it after one year, while the number drops all the way to about 20 percent after three years.
Most officials who work OHSAA games fall into one of two categories when it comes to their work situation: either they have a full-time job and work games as a second job, or they are retired and work games as a way to, as Kleckner describes it, "stay connected to a game that you really enjoy being a part of."
DEALING WITH DRAMA
When problems do arise, officials have a few different avenues to handle resulting concerns. Their most direct outlet is the on-site administrator, often the athletic director for the host school. They can also contact league officials for the conference in which the offending team or teams play.
Having worked nearly 50 years officiating games, Kleckner has known multiple OHSAA administrators and said they have consistently been supportive and helpful in backing officials when sportsmanship and conduct issues arise with players and coaches.
That support is valuable, he added, because local organizations such as leagues and conferences don’t always act quickly or strongly in such situations. Often, he’s seen an unruly person ejected from a game only to be back at the field later the same day or the next day at a different game. Harrell pointed to a vivid incident from last school year involving a new official who was quickly overwhelmed by the contentious, stressful environment that sometimes surrounds high school games.
"We had a new guy this year, he’s been around the game forever, he played, he had a couple of kids who played and then they graduated and he’s probably in his late 40s … one day I got a phone call saying you need to call this guy because he won’t go out on the field," Harrell said. "So I called and asked what was going on and he said, ‘I just can’t do it anymore,’ and this is a guy, he’s umpired six weeks. He said, ‘These coaches and fans, I can’t take it anymore,’ and he literally could not get out of his car. I finally convinced him to put the keys in the ignition and go home, but it was specifically because the coaches and the fans are nuts."
Baseball and basketball are the sports where Harrell and Kleckner have seen the most turnover, but getting new officials for a wide range of sports has proven difficult as well. It’s an issue that appears likely to persist as a new season of high school sports begins later this month and one likely to remain on the minds of the men and women in stripes as well.
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