Ending the abuse of officials at sports fixtures

The attack on a referee who was officiating at a rugby match in South Auckland was just the latest in a string of ugly incidents involving sports in New Zealand over the last few years. It was a reflection of the worst possible mentality to be forged in sport: the win at all costs attitude that winning is everything, and everything else is nothing.

When I was a child, I played club cricket for Old Collegians Cricket Club and was on Team 7. I can’t say that we were the most successful team in the club at my grade, but we were definitely a team that was about teaching the basics, and teaching the players to enjoy the game. We learnt how to bat and bowl. We learnt how to field and we learnt to respect the umpire decisions and the opposition. Did they make mistakes? Of course. I can remember a couple times overstepping the white line that marks the crease whilst bowling and ceding a run because of it, and of leg before wicket calls being wrong. But that is the game.

I also played for Carlton-Redcliffs hockey club. Unlike my cricket team, we were one of the better teams in the grade. I was part of the first all boys team in 1994 – boisterous bunch we were. Handed down as many thrashings as we handed back. But again we learnt to love the game, learnt to respect the umpires and the opposition. Indeed the parents of players were handed notices that laid down the clubs expectations of sideline behaviour – to cheer good play, regardless of the team and respect the umpiring.

Unfortunately the same does not seem to be the case with sports fixtures in many cases these days. Part of it is because children through no fault of their own become a parents vent for their expectations and self bragging rights “My son/daughter did this or that….”. Part of it is because some parents have not ever learnt to respect the fact that referees are human beings who have generously given up their time to officiate a sports match – rugby, cricket, football, whatever it might be.

One has to feel sorry for the girl in a netball team who fails to score a goal or misses an intercept and then her parents scream abuse at her; the boy on the rugby team who fails to get a try or misses the conversion and then gets yelled at. If their parents yell abuse at them in public, then I wonder what they do to them at home.

But when an 11 year old kid attacks a referee it takes the problem to a whole new level and raises some serious questions about his upbringing and the social pressures he was subject to. It sets an appalling precedent that I hope is clamped down on firmly. At age 11 he is old enough to know that you do not attack anyone and certainly not a referee. Although the child might not be old enough to understand the legal ramifications from it he would quickly realize they exist if he were to be banned from successive matches, both as a player and a spectator. But as bad as what he did is, it is probably not appropriate to hand down a season ban and certainly not the life time ban some have been calling for.

But do nothing is not an option. We pride ourselves as a nation that plays fairly. That should be in all aspects of life, and sporting fixtures are in no way exempt and in fact they are one of the places where learning to play fair should start. So why isn’t it?

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