THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
Painting a Picture With Words
Let's start with a disclaimer: in New Jersey, it is forbidden to discuss matters relating to officiating high school sports on social media or any other type of Internet medium. These issues specifically reference coaches, players, and really anything else that could come back to bite the official or the state. Ergo, I can post something to social media asking my fellow umpire colleagues about recommendations for liability insurance for umpires, or about the proper mechanic for a certain play, but I can't vent about how the varsity coach of a school is a mean guy.
That being said, a basketball official in Iowa has done this. Now, he hasn't specifically named names or anything; he's in the gray zone where I wouldn't want to find myself on this issue. And an article in the Des Moines Register has picked up on these little snippets and hailed them as worthy of being viral due to their truth.
The article was written by Aaron Young on January 24, 2017, about Rich Ripley. Ripley has recorded his thoughts from officiating over the past five years, which may explain one of the reasons why it hasn't occurred to him that this isn't a great idea. A five year official may not have the frame of mind to think about how this could be detrimental. Alternatively, the state of Iowa may just not have caught up.
With all this on the table, the thoughts from Ripley are spot on. And the truth that comes from these quotes hit home for officials. Here are the examples shared in the article (edited for grammar, of course):
We find ourselves preaching the same thing over and over again: the officials of any sport are human. The best officials are working the professional leagues; as you go down in level and rank, the officiating follows it. (That's not to say there aren't any good officials for high school contests; the probability of human error just may increase.) These types of thoughts go through the minds of every official at all different points of their season. They are the common problems we all face in the fraternal order of officials.
In addition to everything the officials feel and think, keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of officials do support the kids/players and their volunteer coaches. They want everybody to have a good time. The hard work that everybody puts in does not go unnoticed.
In fact, if there's one thing to take from all this, it should be this: the best coaches and players are not necessarily the ones who garner the most victories, but rather who notice, understand, and accept the fact that the officials put in just as much (if not more) time, effort, and hard work as they do.
Coming Up Short
There's a new problem facing youth sports these days, and it's affecting almost every sport at every level from high school varsity (or the equivalent) and below. Any idea what it is?
If you guessed a shortage of officials, you win.
Officiating organizations throughout the nation are finding it tougher and tougher to put qualified officials on the most important games due to the sole reason that those officials may not be in the rank and file of the chapter. Then again, those same organizations are finding it difficult to put any official on some games simply because the number of available officials, regardless of level or ability, is decreasing.
According to an article by Jay Fanta for Post Bulletin, there are three suggested reasons for this decline in officials:
These three points are all tied together in some fashion in addition to being individual problems. If the number of assignments increases, it demands the recruitment of more officials. But if the recruitment efforts do not yield favorable results, then those assignments can't get filled (or get filled eventually by poor officials). There's no clear cut solution to the problem in general, but any solution to any part of the problem will alleviate at least some part of the burden.
We can also argue that the number of travel teams and tournaments has gotten out of hand, creating the problem of not being able to cover assignments. Kids are playing on more travel teams now than ever due to the pressure to succeed and to try to open as many athletic opportunities for success. It's great that kids get the chance to play sports and remain athletic, but it shouldn't come at the expense of letting a kid experience the things necessary to have a regular childhood.
What about the culture surrounding officials? The common problem is that they're getting paid an incredibly small amount of money to put up with abuse from players, coaches, parents, and fans. Potential recruits for officiating see the abuse and make the sound decision to stay away. Entitled former players see officiating as below them. The relationships between players, coaches, and officials has become so strained that the funnel of officiating cadets has become dry.
But it gets worse. In New Jersey, high school hockey officials are now boycotting their assignments because of the abuse the officials take from parents. It has gotten so bad that it has ended up in the courts. Officials will soon be wearing body cameras so as to present evidence in court to properly adjudicate the wrong doing of the parents.
Ultimately, the solution comes down to respect for officials. If officials are respected on the field, they can set the example that more people should become interested in officiating. Increasing the pay will show that officiating is a decent way to earn money, which can't hurt either. But the combination of respectable compensation, pride in giving back to the community, and knowing that conflict doesn't reside on the other side of the playing field needs to be enacted to see this growing problem disappear. Just another reason why arguing with referees and umpires ends up costing you in the long run...
Youth football is about to look a lot different.
USA Football, the governing body of youth football, announced changes to the game of football for youth so that it might be safer to play. It will be closer to flag football with rules such as only six to nine players on the field per team at a time instead of eleven. Other rules include shrinking the field, eliminating kickoffs and punts, and eliminating the three-point stance of linemen.
The reasoning behind these changes is due to the drop in participation in youth football. It's no surprise that enrollment in youth football programs is down due to safety concerns now that concussion awareness has become widespread. So how does the sport rebound?
Well, the answer is the same as it is generally in a capitalist market if you want to people to buy your product: give the people what they want.
On the surface, making the game safer is a no-brainer (no pun intended). Why would anyone argue over safety concerns for children? Well, traditionalists would argue...but these are probably some of the same people who would argue against the use of helmets in any sport that requires them.
See, the argument is always about safety versus when we begin to train our youth to be "soft." We keep changing so much in the world because people are sensitive to everything these days. It becomes less of a discussion about what will truly be best for our kids and more a political discussion with personal agendas and psychological overtones.
But whereas that argument has its place, football has so much baggage attached to it regarding the new medical evidence regarding concussions and long-term damage to the human brain that reverting back to the side of "don't teach our kids to be wimps" demonstrates nothing more than plain ignorance.
Some experts are predicting that, based on all the evidence coming out about how harmful football actually is to the human brain, the sport will cease to exist within the next twenty years. And if you consider the barbaric origins of the game and the aspects that remain in its current state, maybe that's not a bad thing. Football is entertaining, but the sport has evolved to the point where it is the modern day equivalent of the emperor watching the gladiators fight to the death purely for entertainment.
The bottom line is that football is arguably the most dangerous team sport played in America. If our youth want to play it, they should play it in a manner that does not jeopardize their future. Every other sport has the potential for significantly different rules at the youth level for protection, so why can't football?
This is one of the few times where the argument is clear cut. If you're still hiding behind displeasure of your kid being "soft" if he plays by these rules, then you're simply ignorant to the reality of head trauma.
Culture vs. Fandom
While sitting at one of my favorite pizza places having a sandwich (which is ironic in itself), I was watching a soccer game on the television that was mounted in the corner of the restaurant. My friends behind the counter were invested in this game taking place in Europe, which is no surprise since soccer (or football, as it is more popularly known throughout the rest of the world) is one of the most universal games we have.
I noticed something interesting, though. The crowd at this game was singing in unison while the match was going on...and they didn't stop. It reminded me of a college football game, where sections of underage drunk students would constantly be making obnoxious noise in their attempt to will their team to victory. Thus, it also reminded me of the traditions we hold in American football (the NFL), such as the deafening crowd noise that arises when the visiting team is on offense, in an attempt to influence the outcome of the game by not allowing the offensive players to communicate.
As a steward of the game of baseball, I always viewed this as unsportsmanlike. No matter my role with the game of baseball (be it player, coach, or fan...because umpire is slightly different in this context), my enjoyment of the game came from watching it unfold and participating in the role I had. If I was a player, I was never the cheerleading leader of my team; I focused on what my job was depending on where the ball was hit, or what I needed to do during my turn at-bat. If I was a coach or manager, I was thinking strategy and when it was time to remove my pitcher for a fresh arm. If I was a fan, I was trying to see if my thought process was aligned with the players and coaches of teams I was watching (and obviously rooting for the Yankees). I was never trying to be the loud and obnoxious fan that was attempting to influence the game.
In fairness, however, baseball in America does have one accepted custom that has found unanimously in stadiums. When the home pitcher gets two strikes on the opposing batter, usually the fans will stand and cheer to encourage the strikeout. This was started by Yankees fans during the dominance of Ron Guidry and his record number of strikeouts. And I will admit that I find myself falling in place with this custom, usually when there are two strikes and two outs in the ninth inning and we're one pitch away from winning the game.
This and the singing at a soccer match got me thinking about the different customs at sporting events throughout the world, and it led to a broad examination as to what is culturally accepted as well as a debate as to whether the cultural acceptance is actually a morally good thing.
If we stick with baseball, most of the cheering (or other fan reactions) will occur when a play is not occurring or a pitch is not being made. Fans cheer after a player gets a hit or after a pitcher records a strikeout. The cheering that occurs when a batter has two strikes on him doesn't have the exact same effect as the equivalent might in another sport because it is still up to the pitcher to execute that final pitch. Fans can cheer all the want, but if the pitcher grooves a fastball, a big league hitter will still turn on it and drive it 400 feet. Further, keep in mind that baseball is a game of failure. The best hitters in history failed seven out of every ten times at the plate. So when a batter has two strikes on him, the probability of him failing is already incredibly high; the cheering of the crowd "against" him really doesn't push the needle one way or the other.
Ironically, if we examine baseball in other cultures, we will find behavior that might seem unsportsmanlike, but is really traditional to the native land. For example, in Japan, each hitter has his own march that is played/chanted by fans during his turn at bat. This actually will include the use of trumpets and other instruments that might otherwise be seen as distracting. Yet, this is merely to encourage the home team's hitters, especially when the odds are against them (as they are against every hitter). So long as each march is played in accordance with the traditional rules of encouraging a hitter, it seems like this is also acceptable and not immoral in the grand scheme of fandom. (Latin American cultures have very similar practices, as well.)
While we're on the subject of foreign sports, let's go back to soccer (or football) as it relates to the rest of the world. The fans at these events participate in same type of behavior: any sort of singing, chanting, or performing is not done in an attempt to influence the outcome of the game, but rather to encourage the home team. It also creates a sense of unity among fans, which is greatly valued in non-American cultures among sports fans. So the constant annoying sound of the vuvuzela that is heard at a Spanish soccer game is welcome, no matter how much it makes you want to rip your ears off.
Similarly, soccer (or football...I feel like I have to keep saying it) is such an aerobic sport that the play never stops, even when the ball goes out of bounds. Players are so focused that the sound of the crowd rarely affects them, much the same as in baseball. What's very interesting is that both of these sports have such international appeal while also having such intrinsic beauty to the way they are played that it's no wonder their popularity continues to maintain a strong presence in the international community. These two sports are so different, yet they have more in common than you might think.
Speaking of aerobic sports, let's consider basketball and hockey. One of the biggest differences between these two sports and a sport such as baseball is the use of the PA system during play. In baseball, sound effects, music, and other similar things occur when action is not happening, such as in between pitches or in between innings. In basketball and hockey, sometimes the use of the arena's organ occurs while play is live. A basketball player may inbound the ball, and the organist might play something small and simple while the ball is being brought up the court. Gil Imber, the organist for the Anaheim Ducks, might play something while the puck is being secured in the Ducks' defensive zone and about ready to be brought out to mid-ice. So long as the PA system is not specifically being used to distract the players, there's no fault in using it to create atmosphere.
Fans at these events usually don't try to influence a game with the exception of the distraction of a player during free throws in basketball. It has become commonplace for the fans sitting directly behind the basket to attempt to distract an opposing player from making the foul shots he/she gets after being fouled. This is one of customs in fandom that doesn't serve a purpose because it may actually have an effect on the game. A basketball player's ability to shoot free throws should be determined by his athletic skill level, not on the ability of fans to distract him/her. We finally have our first example of poor sportsmanship in our discussion!
Let's consider sports such as tennis or golf. These are sports where silence is required while players play. It is curious to wonder if this is due to the high level of skill required to play either sport, or if this was some sort of "gentleman's agreement" that has been passed down through the ages. Perhaps it is a combination of both, but it begs the interesting question of whether other sports might benefit from this in certain fashions.
Although we could examine plenty of sports, let's end with the re-examination of American football. Fans clearly believe their crowd noise influences the outcome of a game. Players believe it too. In fact, teams have been known to give themselves strategic advantages (both legal and illegal) regarding noise in order to gain a home-field advantage. Some teams have illegally used fake crowd noise over the PA system to make it even more difficult for the opponents to communicate. The Minnesota Vikings have made it known that their new stadium is built in such a way that the acoustics of the building take the sound and reflect it directly into the opponent's sideline, as if a wave of sound was massively dumped on them. Why is this so important?
What's really funny about this is that football is very much like basketball and hockey in that the better teams usually find ways to "muscle" their way to victory. The execution of team skill doesn't always play out the same way, as opposed to a sport like baseball. (And that's not to mention that baseball is the only sport without a clock...you can't "take a knee" in baseball to run out the clock like you can in football: you have to get all 27 outs.) Yet, even though the better teams usually win in football, teams and fans alike feel drawn to using outside factors such as crowd noise to influence the outcome of the game.
This phenomenon has one good conclusion and one bad conclusion.
The good conclusion is that these practices bring fans together and unite them with the team. The nature of fandom is to feel like you, the fan, are part of the team and share equally in every experience. The psychological idea of being associated with the winner is what sports marketing and management uses to create campaigns that increase revenue left and right. Yet, fans eat it up because it gives them a larger cause or movement that unites them. American football is almost as powerful as any religion in the nation as such, which is ironic since it's played on Sunday.
The bad conclusion (and I would argue more important) is that the desire to influence the game as such by fans and with the endorsement of the franchise shows a severe character flaw in the psyche of the team as a whole. It's as if the team is not confident enough in its ability to out-perform the opponent, so they must use any means necessary to achieve victory. Perhaps fans get a pass on this since they don't know any better; it's so easy to be drawn in by the association with your team and your fandom that considering this psychological issue is not even on the radar of most astute fans. But when players encourage fans to support them, or, more importantly, when teams (especially the front office or any of the off-field personnel) encourage this type of behavior with the acoustic design of a stadium or the graphics that get shown on video boards encouraging fans to become boisterous, it makes this writer step back and ask that age old question that has yet to be answered: "Why?"
As a post script note, I ask this follow-up question. Is this the first catalyst into the stereotype of football players being below average when it comes to intelligence? Does this feed into societal norm that only people who aren't smart can play football? The range of questions that can rise from this is infinite, and the proverbial rabbit hole is so deep that it may never end.
Is It Good To Be Here?
Comedian Josh Sneed tells a story during his standup act (available on one of his CDs) about the time he posed as an umpire at a minor league baseball game as part of a comedy routine. When I heard it, I was embarrassed.
The story goes like this. When Sneed was starting out in comedy, an employee for the Dayton Dragons (currently the Class A affiliate for the Cincinnati Reds) in Dayton, OH, saw his act and recruited him to be some mid-inning entertainment at a Dragons game. The bit they had schemed was that Sneed would dress like the home plate umpire; following the conclusion of an inning, the home plate umpire would leave the field and Sneed would walk out with his mask on, thereby giving off the impression that they were the same person. Sneed would then do his act and leave.
The person who was with Sneed as a Dragons employee that day was a former linebacker for the New York Jets. This man escorted Sneed everywhere he needed to be and comforted him when Sneed was starting to get afraid of doing this. This man also promised Sneed that if he were to get in trouble, he would come out and save him.
The plan was for Sneed to go on after the third inning. However, the umpire made a call at the plate that the crowd deemed wrong and brought the wrath of unhappy customers down on the field. The star player for the Dragons (who was involved in the play) as well as their manager were both ejected. As such, Sneed and his former linebacker bodyguard called an audible and decided to wait about three more innings before going on with the bit.
Three innings later, they went through with it. The home plate umpire walked off the field. The PA announcer told the crowd that the home plate umpire was also a comedian and was going to do his act now. Sneed walked on the field to a chorus of boos and threats, including people threatening to kill him. He did his act, which ended with an insult to the crowd, which Sneed admits was a conscious decision to go down in flames with no dignity. As such, the crowd became worse; fans began throwing food at him. Sneed looked to the dugout and saw his former linebacker bodyguard come rushing out of the dugout. However, he didn't stop; he kept running faster and faster and eventually tackled Sneed to the point where he thought he had a spinal injury. The employee grabbed the microphone and said something along the lines of, "I'll take out the trash tonight!" and picked up a barely conscious Sneed and carried him off the field.
By the way, Sneed did this whole gig for $35.
But that's not the point. Let's discuss the problems here.
First of all, I'm floored that nobody in the Dragons organization didn't step up and say, "I'm not sure, but I think this is a bad idea. What if something goes wrong?" Shame on the organization for not handling itself professionally.
Second, during his act, Sneed refers to the call made by the umpire as "horrible." Perhaps this was part of the bit, but this is the behavior of someone who lacks the ability to see things from the perspective of someone else. Does he think the umpire meant to make a bad call? Could it be that the umpire made the right call and it just happened to go against the home team? When these ideas are neglected, the shortsightedness of people is exposed. Further, Sneed made the decision to go down in flames. Sneed also deserves blame.
Third, the fact that the fans would treat an umpire as such in a way that includes threats and throwing food at him, especially under the ridiculous guise that it was, in fact, the actual home plate umpire under the mask doing comedy, shows a lack of intelligence in the fans of the Dayton Dragons.
Fourth, why wouldn't this linebacker of an employee warn Sneed of such a debilitating injury? And why would he add insult to injury of saying such a ridiculous line about "taking out the trash?" The actual home plate umpire was probably livid because it was supposed to be a reflection, albeit loose, on the actual umpire.
In short, the entire Dayton Dragons organizational front office, their employees, and their fans should be ashamed of themselves. As for Josh Sneed, his act needs to be revised.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.