Cheering for the Refs

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Column published 16 November 2013

It’s that time of year again – basketball season. Every winter, I spend a lot of time in local gyms, watching some good, not-so-good, and truly terrible basketball. I watch all levels – mini ball, junior high, high school (and, of course, the Dal AC Rams).

As I sit in the stands, chatting with the parents of the players, I inevitably get asked “which one’s yours?” They are usually a bit surprised when I say “The one with the braids and the whistle.” You see, I go to the games to cheer on my wife, who referees basketball.

When Joy took up reffing, I started coming to see her games because she liked having another perspective on how she was doing as she was learning this new skill. I quickly re-discovered my love of watching basketball. I was never a player, but have always been a fan. I like the strategy, the tactics, and how the unexpected can happen at any moment (especially with mini ball!).

I quickly realized that I was playing an important role as a fan of the refs in the stands. I was shocked to see how perfectly respectable parents could become vicious critics, turning their frustration with their own children into anger against total strangers. Learning that there was someone sitting next to them who knew the refs often toned down the commentary. Sometimes I even get them yelling “Good call ref!” along with me.

I also learned that many spectators really don’t understand the rules of the game, or reffing strategy. When a parent yells “Didn’t you see that?” I am able to explain that, since the ref was on the other side of the court and had three players in her line of vision, it actually was impossible for her to see what happened in front of us. When a parent doesn’t understand one of the more subtle rules, I can explain it (after hours of listening to the refs debrief every complicated call post-game).

Referees in youth sports usually do it because they love the game and want to help young players develop. Especially at the lower levels, basketball refs do a lot of instruction on the court, helping players understand the rules and how to play the game fairly and safely. They can play an important part in helping the youth develop one of the most important skills in every team sport – good sportsmanship.

The challenge is that not everyone understands that role, or perhaps they don’t believe in teaching their children good sportsmanship. The sad thing is that many refs give up early in their careers because of the abuse they receive from parents and coaches.

The other day I was talking to a parent whose son started reffing hockey at the age of fourteen. After his second game, two grown men were following him out of the rink with their six-year-olds in tow, heckling him about the reffing (after a Timbit-level hockey game!). They were so abusive that he never reffed again. What a terrible impact those men had, both on the young ref and on their own children, who were taught that it is okay to blame your losses on others and to verbally abuse people who care enough to ref your games.

Sports ignite passion, and loyalty to your team and your child can escalate that passion. I love being at games where the parents enthusiastically cheer for everyone on the floor, instead of abusing and blaming others when things aren’t going well. I really love it when people start cheering for both teams – which has happened a few times when there was a blow-out game and the underdog team finally made some of their baskets. That, in my mind, is what sports should be teaching our children.


So, the next time you go to a youth sports event, take a moment to think about the messages you are sending with your support. Be positive and encouraging. And, when you agree with a call, take a moment to yell “Good call, ref!” 

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