This chapter addresses the following:
- How conflict can result from misperceptions about officials
- The signs of potential conflict from game participants
- The importance of having a conflict management plan
- How to implement a management plan
“Please don’t shoot the umpire: He is doing the best he can.” A Kansas City baseball park posted that inscription on a sign in 1880 because of the proliferation of abusive baseball fans. We’ve come a long way since then because we don’t talk about shooting game officials (except perhaps in South American soccer venues). But the fact is that officials continue to be regularly subjected to verbal and, at times, physical abuse and blamed when things don’t work out the way players, coaches, and fans want. This chapter discusses the kinds of conflicts you will encounter as an official, some of the reasons they occur, and ways to manage them.
Conflict Is Inevitable
To manage conflict effectively, you must first understand that it is inevitable. Some commonplaces about conflict should be acknowledged right from the start. When two teams compete in a sporting event, conflict is already present. It may be mild, it may be subdued, and it may even be masked by the appearance of harmony, but the potential for aggrieved feelings is always lurking. An event in the game may trigger an eruption, a series of difficulties may cause frustration to build, and sometimes your decisions or nondecisions will make you the focal point of anger.
As an official, you must approach any contest with the notion that a central part of the job requirement is handling conflict successfully. Although you cannot gauge your success with a scoreboard, when you manage conflict well, you can take a measure of satisfaction in your role.
Today, moreover, the higher up on the officiating ladder you are, the more likely it is that your success in defusing and handling situations and in communicating well with players and coaches will be among the criteria by which your overall effectiveness is judged. In the professional and collegiate ranks, and increasingly in state and local high school officials’ organizations, supervisors spend a great deal of time working with officials on these issues. Handling situations is a hot topic in the officiating camps and clinics that have proliferated in recent years. In sum, the old days in which officials took care of business by simply barking at complainers are long gone.
A favorite slogan among officials is, “You’ve got to love it when they boo,” because it is a fact that onlookers sometimes direct catcalls and sarcastic comments to officials. Coaches, players, and game administrators often show politeness, even deference, before a game begins, but once the contest starts, participants’ and their followers’ behavior can become snide, if not downright ugly.
As an objective participant who must make calls that affect either team, you won’t be able to please people consistently. Therefore, your goal should not be to please people. You are there to arbitrate competition, and the most you can hope for is respect. Officiating is not a popularity contest.
The reasons spectators and participants vent their anger at officials are complex and numerous. Exploring this issue reveals that the problem does not always lie with the official. Understanding that may make the anger easier to forgive. We live in a society that insists on placing blame. Often blame is placed on officials unfairly. Keep that in mind as we explore ways to deal with conflicts.
Conflicts With Players’ Parents
Officials are sometimes blamed for other people’s inadequacies. Parents may want to shift the blame for a player’s lack of talent, a coaching strategy that misfires, or players’ or coaches’ inadequate play. Other factors can be identified, too: perceptions that are clouded by the desire for a favorable judgment in a close play, a general lack of respect for authority figures, and a warped sense of tradition that says it’s all right to take frustrations out on the officials.
Consider a Little League father who barks at an umpire. Does he do this to save face with neighbors after his daughter struck out? To diminish the pressure on his daughter? In frustration with perceived inadequacies of the youngster? Out of impatience with his own lack of success in athletics? To displace his anger at a coach for failing to teach the daughter properly, or his own shame because he himself did not teach his daughter properly? Out of fury at the girl’s mother, who forced the daughter into the sport? Frustration can be compounded by contextual factors, too, such as whether this was the girl’s first at-bat of the season, whether her team was ahead or behind 26 to 0, or whether the game was close with the bases loaded in the last inning. The reasons for parents’ frustrations when their children don’t succeed are innumerable, and blaming officials is sometimes a convenient outlet.
Conflicts With Players
Players, too, sometimes react to officials negatively. Responsible players play the game and adjust to officials’ styles, personalities, and abilities without complaining. They genuinely respect authority. However, some players—even professionals—blame officials (and teammates and coaches) for their own inadequacies. Those who blame others for their own shortcomings have a convenient excuse for failing. It is certainly easier on the psyche to make someone else the scapegoat than it is to accept responsibility for one’s own actions.
Some high school players view sports officials the way they view police officers or school authority figures. Rebellion is often a part of a child’s growth process, especially in the formative teen years. Rebellious kids like to break rules. Referees enforce rules. Conflict results.
Some players, as well as parents, coaches, fans, and the media, believe that opposing players are getting breaks from officials. The perception that their opponents are not judged according to the same criteria as their own team can make an official an easy target for criticism. Officials are only human, too, and officials’ honest mistakes can be perceived as biases.
Conflicts With Coaches
Coaches can also be antagonistic. “A coach spends his entire life thinking he’s fighting off alligators. A referee is just another alligator,” said Jack Pardee, former Houston Oilers football coach (Referee magazine, March 1999, p. 28).
Coaches and officials can have an adversarial relationship because of one major factor: Coaches care who wins and officials don’t. Because coaches are pulling for their teams, devising offensive and defensive strategies, and keeping a keen eye on their players, they see the game with a built-in bias. They want things to go their way. As a consequence, they are sometimes quick to view officials’ decisions as unfair. They may sometimes believe that they have to fight the officials as well as their opponents.
Newer officials in particular also need to understand that officials can catch flak from coaches for reasons having little to do with the call they made (seasoned officials have figured this out). Some coaches, for example, even view their role as a contriver or antagonist in relation to officials. Even if they don’t think an official missed a call, they may howl, whine, and plead in an effort to gain a presumed edge from officials. They believe that if they get on the officials about this call, maybe the next one will go in their favor. This attitude can come from assistant coaches who have worked out a system with the head coach in which they are the designated “attack dog” who will accept an unsporting conduct penalty as the price of “working the officials” in the hope of intimidating them to favor the coach’s team. In this way, the head coach does not have to get his hands dirty. In addition, when they think their teams are too lethargic, some coaches yell at the officials to fire the team up.
Coaches can also get frustrated because they believe (mistakenly, in most instances, as has been discussed) that officials aren’t accountable. This is especially true at the subcollegiate levels. A typical lament is, “If I foul up, I could lose my job. If an official goofs, the league says they’re sorry, and the official keeps the job. Sanctions and reprimands should result from bad calls.” In fact, such penalties are increasingly being imposed, and officials can be dropped from leagues as a result of their shortcomings. Many coaches, however, don’t know this, just as they are unaware of the in-depth training programs and assessment processes that are more and more a feature of officiating life these days.