“Ref, you…!, Ref, you…!” Is this what it’s come to?

March 10, 2022
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It won’t surprise you to know that I enjoy playing and watching all sorts of sports. But, in much the same way I tell kids it’s OK to have a favorite sport — just not an “only” sport — I truly love college basketball. 

As someone who spent 4 years playing on the hardcourts of some of the most famous arenas in the world (yes — even that one), I love to watch objectively and pick out the nuances of the game. I’m a hoops nerd and look for action off the ball, who is communicating best on defense, body language from kids on the bench and the interaction of the head coach with his/her assistants. (And as you’ll see — and perhaps the reason for me sharing this piece — the culture of the fans in the stands).

Imagine my excitement when a friend of mine recently invited me to join him for a match up between Villanova and my hometown University of Connecticut Huskies. Most of my watching — especially during COVID has been on television. It’s been a long time since I’ve been at a major college game — especially in a sold-out arena with two top teams.

It’s perhaps an overused expression, but the XL Center was truly electric that night. The energy from the crowd was palpable and it was loud – VERY, VERY LOUD. 

My iPhone video doesn’t do justice to just how loud and excited the fans were. Read on – and imagine this section plus the rest of the arena chanting together.

The game proved to be one of the best all year by many objective standards with more than 20 lead changes and UCONN’s tiny, senior guard R.J. Cole making three game-changing plays in the final seconds (forcing a jump ball, making an acrobatic shot with his weak hand, and then drawing a charge on the defensive end to seal it).

But, I have to admit my experience was tainted and has haunted me a bit since — and resurfaced watching games again last night. Near the end of the first half of the Villanova game, UCONN head coach Dan Hurley had apparently disagreed one time too many with one of the three referees and was given what appeared to be a bit of a quick technical. Everyone in the arena seemed surprised, including the referee’s partners. So one wisely decided to trade places with the ref who issued the technical (therefore now being the closest to Hurley sending the other referee much further away to let him calm down some as well). Upon replay, you can see UCONN coaches and players quickly calm Hurley down, who smiles realizing he probably overstepped a boundary. He then turns to the crowd and does something I’ve seen him do on TV multiple times  —  he waves his arms up and down encouraging the crowd to get excited  —  and they respond with a roar! 

The same referee, now standing on the other side of the court, is infuriated, thinking the gesture is towards him and immediately issues Hurley a second technical which ejects him from the most important game of the season to date with more than a half to play. 

So, full disclosure before I move on. I don’t know exactly what prompted the first technical, so can’t comment there, but I do not think the ejection was warranted, but referees are human and we need them to play games and we have to rely on them to make judgment calls. This was just one of many made every game. 

It’s what ensued that has me really thinking about the fact that this is COLLEGE basketball and college is and alway should be about EDUCATION.

Within seconds, and on multiple occasions afterwards, the majority of the arena broke into chants of, “Ref, you suck! Ref, you suck!, Ref, you suck!”. And when that didn’t seem to be enough, the chant got reversed with another word ending in “ck” leading the way. “..ck you, Ref! ..ck you, Ref!, ..ck you, Ref!” being screamed by nearly 16,000 people. 

There was a United States congressman sitting courtside less than 20 feet from me (not partaking, but like me  — experiencing). It was not just the student section. It was also the 75-year-old couple sitting in front of me and hundreds of couples and families scattered throughout the arena enthusiastically joining in the chant. 

What bothered me most was looking at the young children looking up at the adults around them and then, as if just given permission to do a bad thing, joining in with them. Perhaps you find humor in 7-year-olds screaming “..ck you, Ref!” I do not.

Because those 7-year-olds are high school/college students themselves before you know it and they then go to games and try to “one up” on the behaviors and the antics. 

As if right on cue, the day after the UCONN/Villanova game, Dr. Karissa Niehoff of the National Federation of High School Athletics shared this article titled: Regarding Sportsmanship, It’s Time for Wake-Up Call in High School Sports.

Here are some key examples they cite:

  • The mayor of a city was ejected from his daughter’s high school basketball game after threatening a referee.
  • A volleyball official was followed off the court by a coach who was shouting obscenities.
  • A referee was assaulted and knocked unconscious during a basketball tournament.
  • A student from the opposing school in the stands shouted racist comments at a high school basketball player on the court.
  • At another game in another state, inappropriate chants were made against the opposing team’s players on the court.
  • While it was at a lower level, continued poor parent behavior in the stands led a Central New York youth basketball league to end the season early. 

Last night, on national television, a fight broke out between the fans of Bryant University and Wagner College. And when I say fight, it was a melee type brawl. It was ugly. But, during the game, the best player on the court was truly obnoxious and as a result was riling up the crowd who mirrored his obnoxious behavior. 

Not surprisingly, after the game, the coach of the winning team defended it all. The head men’s basketball coach is often the highest paid educator at a college or university. And yes – I used the term “educator” intentionally there. Imagine if the head of the math department encouraged/accepted obnoxious behavior and then defended a fight between students that was prompted by that obnoxious behavior. College presidents would never stand for that.

Why do we do so in sport’s settings?

You need to understand that I live in the world of grassroots sports and wake up everyday trying to impact the culture of sport and create enjoyable experiences for kids to be involved in sports. Please step aside from the “entertainment” piece of college basketball and recognize that as part of the NCAA (one of the wealthiest “charitable” organizations in the world), the basketball court should be considered an extension of the classroom in the same way that it is in high school athletics. There is nothing more frustrating than working grassroots to only have all those efforts thwarted by the behaviors of entitled fans who are enabled by the educator adults in charge by doing nothing about it.

As such, here are a couple of simple fixes that won’t “spoil the fun” of fan participation.

  • Any cheers done by groups of home fans that are derogatory toward the officials or members of the opposing team will be given an “arena warning”. (I’m not talking the chant of “airball” here, I mean ones like “Ref, you suck” or something deemed racist or derogatory toward a player or coach on the other team — some judgment will be needed here. It’s why we should have courageous athletic directors present at home games)
  • The second offense will be a technical against the home team head coach
    • By doing this, that head coach will be given the opportunity to address the crowd to remind them of the rule and the consequences.
  • A third offense will be the ejection of the home team coach

(If any of the above is done by individuals, they are ejected from the arena immediately).

These types of chants will stop if they could lead to a consequence that puts the home team at risk of losing the game.

If we really want to regain some semblance of normalcy in the youth ranks, we need to regain control of the adult ranks. I’m intentionally staying away from professional sports here. While I wish they behaved better, they are not by definition, places of education. Colleges and high schools are and, as such, the adults in charge should act like it and implement simple rules that will quickly change the culture of our arenas and our educational institutions for the better. In doing so, I can guarantee that you will have a trickle down effect on our youth who are always  —  and I mean, always  —  watching. 

Remember, some day – these 7 year olds will be educational leaders as well. 

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About Steve Boyle

Steve is the Executive Director of 2-4-1 CARE, Inc and Co-Founder/Director of 2-4-1 Sports -- a signature program of 2-4-1 CARE-- whose flagship program is held at the Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford, Conn. but now has locations throughout the United States and Canada. 2-4-1 was recognized by the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC as one of eight model programs in the United States for its approach to anti-specialization in youth sports. This led Steve to form the National Association of Physical Literacy – of which he is now Advisory Board Chair. Steve is also a founding member of the Quality Coaching Collective – an international group of activators around sport, movement and mindfulness. Lastly, through his role at CCG, Steve was the two-year Global Lead on Physical Literacy and Athletics for Whittle School & Studios (2018-20), which currently has campuses in Shenzhen, China and Washington, DC.

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  1. Hi Steve. I read your story with great interest and agree wholeheartedly that fans’ behavior reminds me of kindergarten recess.

    I witnessed enough of it at a number of high school games over the years. I saw an adult at one school actually grabbing the jersey of a player attempting an inbound pass. I watched officials whom I had come to know, appreciate and respect getting harassed by mindless, often drunken idiots.

    That was then. It’s much worse now. People need a dose of reality. I guess they pay no attention to the plight of the Ukrainians. They treat elections like popularity contests and elect incapable, corrupt extremists who drag America toward darkness.

    Our society mirrors that of the Roman Empire in its waning years. Self-absorbed elite paying more attention to their next toga party instead of addressing the republic’s needs. The barbarians are among us. In fact, they ARE us. Can any of us do anything about it? I’m not sure. Good behavior starts at home, and family values continue to fade into obscurity. COVID obviously had a lot to do with moral national decay, but it’s fading, yet will fans ever act in a civil manner? I’m too old and sour to speculate.