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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Time for some lax dads to shut up and sit down

Covering a D3 game recently, I was appalled by the behavior of about five or six of the home team players' fathers toward the officials. It is not the first time this year I have encountered such conduct, and the identity of this particular school is not important. I took particular notice this time because it was so out of place in the otherwise perfect lacrosse environment. Unfortunately, I am constantly editing E-Lacrosse video to eliminate loud and nasty jeering by a parent or group of parents. I can tell it's getting worse.

Various Googled, bookmarked and never-read studies seem to indicate that fan behavior is getting worse all over. YouTube is populated with various sideline arrests, fights and other parent-related sports incidents. Parental behavior has been a serious problem from youth leagues through high school for years. The issue of unruly parents, while isolated to dads (meaning men and not women, generally), is not isolated to D3 or even men's lacrosse. I have personally witnessed many dads in DI women's lacrosse behave atrociously.

While the abuse that I witnessed wasn't the worst I've seen, it was perhaps the most illustrative. Each of these dads had their own theme or personal approach in the harassment of the officials. With every hit, out of bounds ball or close play, a cacophony of signature jeers would begin, interrupting the constant loud muttering which still lingered from the last. There was the astonished dad. His shouts always indicate surprise, like: "ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I CANNOT BELIEVE THAT ONE! THIS IS NOT HAPPENING!"

He stood next to the aggrieved dad, who would yell things like: "YOU ARE KILLING ME! JUST GIVE THEM THE GAME ON A FREAKING PLATTER, WHY DON'T YA?"

Nearby was the harbinger of doom dad, offering up his loudest advice: "I"LL JUST CALL THE AMBULANCE NOW!"

The sarcastic dad threw me. For a moment, I thought he was supporting the refs against all the other dads. He shouted something like: "THAT'S A GOOD ONE!"

A bit later, during a flurry of haranguing, he yelled again: "THAT'S A GOOD NO-CALL! THAT'S A GOOD NO-CALL!" but followed it up with "OH YEAH, GREAT NO-CALL! JUST GREAT!" and I was deflated. He was one of them.

The naive dad kept yelling "WARD! WARD!" over and over every time the other team had the ball. There were times when it was obvious he had no idea what a ward -- interfering with a defender's stick with your off-hand -- was. The accusatory dad piped in with "HOW MUCH DID THEY PAY YOU?" just as the humorist hit the official with some cataract surgery reference or maybe "YOU'RE MISSING A REALLY GOOD GAME!"

Grand conspiracy theorist dad belts out "WHAT? DID YOU COME ON THE BUS WITH THEM?" One guy would follow the action, literally moving with the game along the sideline just deriding the official closest to him. Another kept bringing God into it, yelling "OH MY GOD" and "HOLY JESUS!"

The abuse started early too. After the second play of the game, an eruption of critical shouts were highlighted by the singular bellowed follow-up of "OH, ITS GONNA BE ONE OF THOSE?" which not only forewarned those in attendance of the behavior to come, but indicated to me that these guys had been here before. This was ongoing behavior. These were serial offenders.

By game's end, it was obvious that this team's games had become a participation event for those dads as much as for the kids. At one point, a dad ran the sideline alongside the ref, with his head in his hands in terrible grief, all the while, hurling invectives. His buddies pointed at him and laughed. This group of dads looked like they had a system. They split up, covering both ends of the field with their abuse in two little packs. They stood as close to the sideline as they could.

One of these bullies actually carried a camera around with him so he could stand closest to the field. I never once saw the camera lift to his eye, but his mouth just moved for the entire length of the game. He cursed, insulted the ref some 20 times, commented on EVERY hit of the game and engaged the referees directly.

This man was easily the worst of the bunch because while he had a kid on the field, he had two on the sideline with him, who would look at each other and smile whenever he acted up. They admired it. By game's end, one of the young men harassed a ref himself in one of the ugliest tirades I have ever seen while his dad stood next to him, arms folded in disgust -- AT THE REF!

The opposing team was physical. The game was hard-fought. You could audibly hear most of the checks from both teams. The play was fair for the most part, and fouls were called when it wasn't. A few calls were missed on both sides like every game I have ever seen. I do not know these refs personally, though I know quite a few all over the world. I have, however, seen them officiate many times without thinking any were less than competent or fair, which is to say they are excellent refs. I film many games and watch every game I film at least three times in the production process, so I do not miss much. I know who the bad refs are, and there are far fewer than many fans think.

Refs are human though, and at the end of this game, I might have seen a call or non-call go the way of the complaining parents, whose team had long been out of contention. Any person who interprets that as a good reason to continue this behavior should stay away from lacrosse fields altogether. This is a gentleman's game, and spectators should behave accordingly.

Other than offering the appropriate spirited encouragement, fans attempting to influence the game in any way, are cheating. Frankly, at the college level, parents who take their offspring's sporting events too seriously and cannot control their poor sportsmanship, are pathetic. I played on a team with a really terrible dad once, and the son was so embarrassed and horrified by the parent's behavior at games that it affected his play and even his life off the field. At a major college game, there is an announcement before the start that requests the fans not to use foul language, be racist or sexist in any way or show unsportsmanlike behavior. It also forewarns that such behavior will be met with more than just disapproval. The offenders will be removed from the game premises physically. I have not seen too many removals over the years, but I have seen some.

At the smaller college games where less than 100 parents converge with less than 60 girlfriends and frat brothers to watch a game, sometimes at a venue that is not even on campus, there is no security. Why should there be? The kids in the stands are well-behaved, and the rest of the audience pays tuition. Where there are no public announcement systems, there are no public announcements and no sportsmanship warning.

Policing the sportsmanship at these games will become a problem that requires addressing if we can't just get the few dads to act responsibly. But that's harder than it seems. In this game, there were more harassers than there were refs, so if the refs had confronted the group, they might have been assaulted. Maybe not. But I would not say anything to them, due to their numbers, and I am not bashful about such things.

So how does a kid stop his father from behaving that way? How do a few of the offended moms or perhaps opposing team's parents approach or confront the ever-growing issue of terrible dads, much less the actual dads themselves? They can't. If the "dad community" doesn't get a handle on the issue, behind the scenes, at the tailgates, over a beer at the hotel, it will escalate and hurt the game. That is your challenge, Lax Dads, before it's too late.

That fan behavior policy which is read at the big games, and the security that would enforce it are really just an extension or embodiment of an NCAA's strategic plan related to sportsmanship, a portion of which includes fan behavior. It is policy. Most schools have a much harder time adhering to the policy when it comes to small sports, off-site games when schools don't have their own venues and neutral site games, like when teams travel for spring break. In lacrosse, this includes teams in every division. This is NOT just a D3 issue in lacrosse. Right now, schools are getting away with not ensuring that fan behavior is appropriate at all small-sport venues because there is no objection about the fans.

Complaints from fans or refs about the type of behavior I witnessed yesterday, and more often lately, will draw the ire and reaction of the NCAA lawyers who crafted the pre-game statement for a good reason. They mitigate liability for a living. The notes from a 2006 D3 NCAA Management Council Meeting state that there was a sentiment that sportsmanship behavior had slipped since a 2003 Fan Behavior Summit held to address already falling levels of fan behavior. They are on this issue. The squeaky wheels will get the grease.

A mandatory public announcement policy and a fan behavior enforcement requirement would increase the cost of hosting a lacrosse team at some schools beyond their abilities. Many colleges would just stop playing a sport that draws only 100 people a game when the fans are so obnoxious that they have to secure the place like a 10,000-seat arena. Think about it.

You know that "one bad apple" adage our parents used to use? Well, it applies now to the parents on lacrosse fields. A few of our bad apple dads are ruining the college lacrosse experience for some others and might hurt the game just as badly if they continue. So for the rest of us, for the real fans, and for the game, I say this to only the dads who need to hear it: Dad, shut up and sit down.

April 5, 2008
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