MIDVALE – Like most officials, Tuckett Slade is no stranger to complaints, jeers or insults.
But last winter, a group of fans did something that both shocked and scared the eight-year veteran.
During the 1A state tournament in Richfield, the game he was officiating came down to a last-second shot attempt. The ball clanked off of the iron, and while one team celebrated their win, the other screamed at Slade and his partner about a call they didn’t make.
“They thought their guy got fouled,” he said. “And the players said some things, but it was the fans. They decided to do something I’ve never seen before.” As Slade and his partner left the court, a wall of angry parents stood between them and their locker room.
“About six or seven dads rushed down onto the court, toward the exit where my partner and I usually leave the court,” he said. “We couldn’t get through. They were yelling and screaming, calling us cheaters, every name in the book you could possibly think of.”
As they sought help from the scorers table and other officials in the stands rushed to their aid, one of the fathers got physical with Slade.
“One dad chest bumped me into the wall,” Slade said. “And then he said, ‘I’m going to meet you in the parking lot and (expletive) kill you.”
Slade and his partner eventually made it to the locker room where they waited for 45 minutes, hoping the fans would dissipate or that help had been called. They didn’t know police were called and escorted the men out of Richfield High School.
“I’ve been through some heated moments in my life,” he said. “But that was the first time I was like, ‘Wow.’ … Fans say a lot of things. We hear it all. And coaches and players, they usually don’t get under my skin. This was the first time I was physically touched by a guy. The look in his eyes, he was serious.” It was so disconcerting that Slade and his partner tried to coordinate their drive home so that if they were followed, neither of them would be alone.
“We didn’t know they’d been escorted out of the gym by the Sheriff's (deputies),” he said.
Slade’s experience may be among the more extreme examples, but Utah has experienced shortages of officials across almost all sports. It’s gotten so much worse that Utah officiating associations and the Utah High School Activities Association have declared this week (Jan. 28-Feb. 2, 2019) Sportsmanship Week.
This week officials will wear blue sweatbands that feature a triangular image highlighting the fact that players, coaches, parents, fans and officials are responsible for changing the toxicity of competitive environments.
Each corner represents one of those groups, with an “S” for sportsmanship in the middle.
“Our whole goal is to create awareness that will reduce the problems we’re having with sportsmanship,” said UHSAA assistant director Jeff Cluff, who oversees officials. “We want to create awareness, not only with the officials, but with the fans, coaches and players, because they have a large part in this.”
Cluff said the officials came up with the idea, and the UHSAA embraced and expanded it because of some troubling situations this winter.
“As we continue to play games, we continue to have all kinds of problems,” he said. “Ultimately, I hope we have a better environment for the kids to play in.”
Slade said those involved in youth and high school sports need to remember that they’re participating in a game that’s supposed to be teaching positive ideals and values to the teenage student athletes.
“(The worst behavior) comes from the fans,” Slade said. “These fans are now saying and doing things that I could never have imagined them doing when I first got into this. My wife won’t even come to games any more.”
Each high school will also receive a letter asking them to read a statement about sportsmanship before each game.11 comments on this story
A National Association of Sports Officials survey found that 57 percent of officials feel sportsmanship is getting worse. Most of them (39.5 percent) say parents are the cause of it, while 29.5 percent blame coaches and 18.25 percent blame fans.
Only two out of 10 officials return for a third year of officiating, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The leading cause officials cited for quitting was poor sportsmanship of participants and spectators.
Slade said many of those he recruits leave before they ever really move up the ranks.
“A lot of the people I got involved only lasted a year or two,” he said. “The pay is not worth the abuse we get verbally.”