ORONO — Shane Lowell was just supposed to coach basketball when he traveled to Orono earlier this month for a youth tournament. Instead, he spent part of his day in the emergency room.
On the morning of March 3, Lowell and the Down East Family YMCA 5th/6th-grade girls’ basketball team traveled to Orono Middle School to take part in this year’s Orono Memorial Hoop Classic. It was the final day of the tournament, which raises money for youth sports programs.
Quite unexpectedly, Lowell, the YMCA’s youth sports director, soon found himself trying to stop a fight that broke out after an official instructed an unruly fan to leave. Upon reluctantly doing so, the spectator engaged in another heated argument, this time with other fans and tournament volunteers. When Lowell tried to defuse the situation, he was pushed head-first into a metal post.
“It was kind of surreal,” said Lowell, who said others in the hallway had to physically restrain the fan following the attack. “One of the parents and one of the players both saw me bleeding and called 911. … Everybody was like, ‘What is happening right now?’”
Lowell made a quick recovery from the incident after getting three stitches above his left eye and receiving treatment for a mild concussion.
After arriving at the school, police arrested the unruly fan, James Parsons, 53, of Albion. Orono Police Chief Joshua Ewing said Parsons was charged with Class D assault and Class E disorderly conduct.
The incident, which became statewide and national news, is an extreme example of negative fan behavior. Although Lowell was OK and even returned to the school at noon for DEFY’s final game, the question remains: With fan behavior, when does enough become enough?
A growing problem
Peter Webb has spent the past 27 years as the state’s commissioner of basketball. He put in 17 years coordinating rules interpretation for the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials. In the 57 years he’s spent as a certified official, Webb has seen every shade of fan behavior. He believes conduct in the modern era is worse than ever before.
“These days, there is no question that commotions, behaviors and so forth at these games have worsened,” Webb said. “Yes, people see it more now with technology and media, but the actual behavior that you are seeing is still worse.”
Current and former referees agree with Webb. In a 2017 National Association of Sports Officials survey of 17,487 current and former officials, nearly 57 percent of respondents said sportsmanship was getting worse; only 15.9 percent said it was improving.
Some of the worst behavior, Webb said, comes from club team parents at youth travel tournaments similar to the one in which Lowell suffered his injuries.
“These travel leagues have gained a lot of popularity in the past 15 years, and I think those leagues have been the source of a lot of the problems you see,” Webb said. “What you see on the weekends in some of those travel tournaments would never be condoned in our schools.”
The survey supports that argument. Nearly half of respondents said sportsmanship is at its worst at the youth recreational and competitive levels compared to the 14.7 percent who said the high school level was the worst environment. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of respondents had removed a spectator from a youth game for “poor behavior.”
Crossing the line
Sportsmanship issues have had an adverse effect on referees and officials, who have been hanging up their whistles across the board in recent years. The Portland Press Herald reported last month that baseball (25 percent), basketball (13 percent) and soccer (9 percent) officiating numbers in Maine have plummeted over the past decade. In the National Association of Sports Officials survey, 75 percent of officials who quit cited “adult behavior” as the reason why.
“Refereeing in Maine is in a tough spot,” said Michele Dwyer, the secretary for the Maine Field Hockey Umpires Association. “I have been an umpire for soccer, lacrosse and field hockey, and there is a major shortage in all sports. … Fan behavior, I think, could definitely influence officials that are inexperienced and lacking confidence. [Athletic directors could also] have a huge impact with fan behavior.”
Chants and complaints about officiating decisions are common, but referees have thick skin and are taught to focus on the action taking place in front of them. Yet problems can arise when comments directed at individual officials, coaches and even players from one or a few fans lead other spectators to join in.
In one instance this season, fans mocked a Mount Desert Island basketball player upon her return to the game from an injury suffered earlier. During last year’s state basketball tournament, one man’s tirades became so out of line that he was told over the Cross Insurance Center’s public address system to stop. The home-plate umpire of a Class B North baseball game last season gave a similar warning to one team’s coach and fans after four innings of verbal abuse.
“A lot of these attacks are personalized,” Webb said. “It doesn’t necessarily go on all game long, but it happens enough. One person making a scene can make others engage in behavior that leaves a lot to be desired.”
It happens to coaches, too. Just as fans have tendencies to second-guess officials, they also speak up about the many personnel and tactical decisions coaches make during the game. Those tensions often continue behind the scenes, where coaches often struggle to keep every parent and player satisfied.
“Coaches walking away because of parents is something that happens frequently,” Lowell said. “I would say 90 percent of that is because of playing time. When you have 10-12 kids on a team like most sports do, it’s going to be difficult for every single person to get to play as much as they want. When you’re dealing with those complaints all season long, it’s not fun.”
What’s the fix?
At Ellsworth High School, few individuals are more familiar with the modern high school sports scene than Josh Frost. He’s lived the Ellsworth athletic experience from multiple perspectives at the school, where he was an athlete in the late 1990s and is now the athletic director.
In his four years as athletic director, Frost hasn’t seen any truly appalling instances of poor fan behavior at Ellsworth High School. Yet the school still has procedures in place to keep officials, players and coaches as far from harm’s way as possible in the event that threats to safety were to arise.
“We have plans in place to make sure officials and teams get in safely, are safe during the game and have the doors lock behind them in the locker rooms and can leave safely,” Frost said. “For bigger events with bigger crowds, we’ll also have a school resource officer on hand. You want to be as vigilant as you can be because you never know what can happen.”
People in leadership positions, Webb believes, should assume responsibility for the conduct of all coaches, athletes and spectators. Officials, he said, should make note of these incidents and have the authority to step in if something goes awry.
More than 80 percent of National Association of Sports Officials respondents expressed a similar sentiment, saying they should be able to have a spectator removed for “poor behavior.” Nearly half claimed to have done so at least once.
“[We should] support all efforts to remove physical and verbal abuse from sporting activities,” Webb said. “Perhaps a positive adult example now will produce a new generation of more tolerant, more knowledgeable and more supportive sports fans.”
Lowell, who expressed optimism about the future of youth sports and described the incident leading to his injury as an “isolated” one, said positive game atmosphere starts with the coaches on both teams. As both a youth coach and official, he knows there’s only so much that referees, umpires and competition judges can do if the face of the team isn’t on board.
“The meeting between the two coaches before the game is one of most important things you do as a coach,” Lowell said. “It automatically brings the coaches together. If the coaches are together, the players are together, and if the players are together, the fans are together. It sets the stage for a well-behaved game.”
No matter how many policies or expectations are put in place, those involved with youth and high school athletics will give you the same bottom line: Sports are about the athletes who play them. Making them about anything else, as happens far too often, takes away from what should be a positive and rewarding experience.
“These are kids,” Frost said. “They’re out here playing sports because they enjoy them. When you look at the big picture, that’s what all this is about. That’s something we all have to remember.”