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Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook gets into a heated verbal altercation with fans in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Monday, March 11, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — As a longtime baseball umpire, Eric Olsen has seen his share of angry fans.

But in his first season of refereeing youth hockey, he witnessed the worst incident he’s seen of bad fan behavior in his decade of officiating.

“In all the years I’ve officiated sports, we take a lot of flak,” said Olsen, who used his phone earlier this month to record the end of a confrontation between a man and a group of parents who were trying to restrain him from fighting with a pee wee hockey coach after a game at the Salt Lake Sports Complex.

"People usually know when enough is enough. That’s what scared me the most. This guy couldn’t de-escalate. … Even when the police were there, he was resisting.”

The problem of parents and fans behaving badly is worse than ever, according to coaches, officials and league administrators. And the issue doesn't seem to be unique to any sport or any league.

“As a society we’re worse,” said Kelly Grover, the Rocky Mountain District’s risk manager who has spent 30 years in youth and high school hockey. “It’s worse at every level from youth to the pros, and it’s worse in every sport.”

A sampling of other incidents in Utah from just the past few weeks seems to support Grover’s assertion.

• The Utah Jazz banned two fans from Vivint Smart Home Arena for life after two separate incidents involving Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. The player accused a fan of using racist language toward him during a March 11 game after Westbrook was videotaped cursing and threatening the fan and his wife. Westbrook was fined $25,000. Team owner Gail Miller delivered a message to Jazz fans asking for civility and respect, and promising strict enforcement about fan code of conduct at games. The incident prompted the NBA to ask all 30 teams to create a PSA to emphasize the "importance of respect and civility in NBA arenas."

• Kaysville police are investigating an incident at a Feb. 12 high school game between Clearfield and Davis. During a varsity boys basketball game, a parent reportedly became angry after his child was pulled from the contest and tried to confront Clearfield's head coach during the game but was stopped by another adult. Police declined to release the initial report or offer more details about the incident, as they’re still investigating the confrontation.

• At the high school girls basketball tournament last month at Salt Lake Community College, police officers were called when dozens of parents got into a heated argument following the 5-A semifinal game. No arrests were made.

In isolation, these incidents may not seem like a big deal. But sports officials say they’re part of a worsening trend that has already had a number of negative impacts — including declining numbers of referees and umpires at all levels, schools and leagues hiring armed security officers at games, and the incalculable, demoralizing effect on the athletes.

Hockey incident

“That was the sad thing,” Olsen said of the hockey incident on March 2 involving an angry dad. “Some of the kids had skated over near the glass (where parents struggled to restrain the father) … and a couple (of them) were yelling at them to stop, a couple kids were crying. The adults tried to get kids back into team boxes … tried to get them away from the commotion.”

Olsen said that confrontation began when he called a penalty on a player, sending that 12-year-old athlete to the penalty box. While he was reporting it to the scorekeeper, he noticed a man, sitting a few rows behind the penalty box, yelling at the young player.

“The scorekeeper said, ‘There is a parent who keeps yelling at kids who are on the opposite team in the penalty box. He’s been doing it all game, and he needs to leave,’” Olsen recalled. “So I skated over to the coach (affiliated with the yelling man) and said, ‘I’m not going to start the game again until that parent is gone.’

"The coach agreed, and someone approached the parent. Meanwhile, the guy kept yelling at the kid in the penalty box, and as it turned out, that player was the (opposing) coach’s kid.”

When that child’s father, an assistant coach for the opposing team, began yelling back at the man, the angry fan screamed, “Let’s go. Let’s take this outside!” according to Olsen. The assistant coach began to move toward the coach, but was then intercepted by other parents.

“They kind of restrained the parent, and eventually took it up to the concourse,” Olsen said. “I could see 10 people involved in trying to get this guy (out of the arena) — wrestling, pushing and shoving, name-calling, swearing, and eventually they moved him outside of the building.”

Olsen said there were about 10 minutes left in the game, so he told the coach who’d left to engage the parent that he had to go sit behind the scorekeeper for the remainder of the game.

“He never did go all the way over,” Olsen said. “He just stayed in the bleachers behind his team. When the game was over, as the kids were shaking hands, this parent came back inside and finds this assistant coach. They start fighting, when some of the parents end up grabbing the parent who was the problem, while the scorekeeper called police.”

Three Salt Lake police officers responded to the call and handcuffed the man so they could take him from the arena. On the video, he appears combative and angry, even when he is dealing with police.

But he wasn’t arrested.

Salt Lake Police Lt. Greg Wilking said once officers took the man outside, he calmed down and they were able to talk to him about what had happened.

“The officers remove him from the altercation, while everybody else starts to fill out witness forms,” he said. “The actual person he was in a confrontation with has left the scene. I have people who are witnesses that say they didn’t actually witness the fight, but they all jump in to break it up. People are saying a fight broke out, lots of yelling, obscenities, but no punches, and they separated. You have what is going to be a fight, maybe, but everybody intervenes before there is an actual fight. … Basically, they get in each other’s faces and people pull them apart. There is not an actual physical assault.”

The Utah Amateur Hockey Association is still looking into the incident, although local league officials didn’t return calls or emails from the Deseret News inquiring about this incident and others like it. But Kathleen Smith, district director for the Rocky Mountain District, which includes Utah, said she is aware of the incident.

“It’s being looked into and so nothing can be released about it,” she said, acknowledging that local officials are likely reticent to discuss this type of situation for several reasons.

“(Some) hate to bring this up and have it reflect on your sport,” said Smith, who has been involved in hockey as a parent and an administrator for more than 23 years. “They want to keep it as quiet as possible because they don’t want the bad press. … That is not the right way to handle it. … The best way to combat this is to show the behavior right back to the person who committed it. Videos help.”

Some options

The issues aren’t always conflicts between opposing fans, players or officials. Sometimes it’s the between parents and coaches affiliated with the same team, as it was when Davis hosted Clearfield in a high school game on Feb. 12.

That incident is still being investigated by Kaysville police, according to Lt. Paul Thomson. On Friday, Kaysville records officials said they wouldn't release more information to the Deseret News until March 22.

“The case is still active,” he said, noting detectives are waiting for surveillance video from the game in which the parent of a Clearfield player reportedly tried to assault head coach Curtis Hulse. Hulse, Clearfield Principal Chris Keime and Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams all declined to comment on the case out of concern for the player involved.

Williams said school officials have the option of issuing a trespass notice to parents that forbids them from coming onto school property without first getting permission. These citations are more commonly issued for confrontations that occur with teachers than with coaches, Williams said.

So far during this school year, the district has issued six trespass notices, and only one involves an athletic event. Police have issued three more trespass notices, and none of those were at athletic competitions.

Smith said all parents sign an agreement promising respectful behavior when they sign their children up and become members of USA Hockey. Nearly every Utah school district contacted has a policy that is aimed at fan or parent behavior, and most coaches try and address this issue with parents before tryouts each season.

“The numbers of reports that I have appear to be going up,” said Jeff Cluff, assistant director of Utah High School Activities Association who oversees officiating. “I had an incident at Salt Lake Community College (during the girls tournament), where a guy was berating the officials, and i went over to him and asked him to come outside with me. He started to accuse me of being a racist … and sometimes officials aren’t sure they want to take it to the next level.”

Even in cases where there is a physical altercation, Cluff said there is concern about the young players that impacts finding solutions or issuing punishments.

“In these situations where there is clearly an assault, (often) everyone is reluctant to press charges,” he said.

One issue in dealing with the problem seems to be the gap between doing nothing and calling in police or taking other legal action.

At least one district instituted a rule that hopes to prevent a tense situation from escalating.

“It was about five or six years ago, we came up with a 48-hour policy,” said Juab School District Superintendent Rick Robins, who’s experienced the issue as a coach, principal and a parent. “There is no communication with coaches for 48 hours after a game, as best we can enforce it. We felt like it would give our coaches and parents an opportunity to cool off.”

Pressures

Robins said some of the friction comes from the financial investment from many parents and the high-pressure atmosphere for many coaches.

“The pressure our coaches are under its unlike it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s probably getting more intense. … And along with that, the investment by parents (financially) is at an all-time high.

"You look at the amount of money when it comes to club teams, accelerated leagues and private lessons, parents develop expectations that cross all spectrums. It’s that pay-to-play mentality. ‘I’ve invested in my kid’s future, and therefore I have this expectation that my son or daughter will have a certain experience,’” Robins said.

Brighton High Principal Tom Sherwood said one of his coaches was confronted and pushed up against lockers by a parent earlier this year. The coach told the principal, but they didn’t report the incident to police.

“I’ve heard about a half dozen incidents of inappropriate interactions with parents in just our region,” Sherwood said, noting there are a few reasons why the problem is “definitely getting worse."

"These situations where adults are behaving badly, it’s not taking time to assess facts. People are taking teenager reports at face value. I’m not saying don’t listen to your kids and don’t trust your kids … but parents should try to resolve an issue by asking to talk to the coach or report it to the principal.”

Sherwood said he’s had parents report issues to him, but when he tries to address them through conversations or meetings, parents often ask him not to address it with the coach because of fears that their child’s playing time or position on the team will be impacted.

“Rarely do I have parents willing to sit down and resolves issues,” Sherwood said. “They hold it in because they’re afraid of impacting their student’s ability to play, and then it gets to a boiling point because they feel like they have no recourse.”

Administrators and coaches said the toxic environment pushes good coaches out of the profession at younger ages. Grover understands that as he's worked as a scorekeeper for high school softball and an announcer for high school basketball, and hears the vile, abusive sentiments hurled at coaches, officials, and sometimes teenage players.

“Where we sit, we hear it,” he said. “We’re constantly bombarded with screaming, yelling and negativity. It’s just constant.”

Fleeing officials

The most measurable of the devastating impacts of abusive parents is a dwindling number of officials in every sport at every level.

“We try to reach out to all of those people we hear are leaving and ask them what the reason is,” Cluff said. “Among younger officials, the majority of those leaving say it’s sportsmanship issues."

Scott G.Winterton, Deseret News
Scott Maxfield, a high school referee, officiates a game on Nov. 15, 2002.

The National Association of Sports Officials surveyed officials who left the high school ranks and found that 75 percent pointed to "adult behavior," according to an article published by the National Federation of High School Associations last month.

Most alarming to administrators like Cluff, however, is that the survey found 80 percent of new officials leave after just two years on the job.

The inability to keep younger officials on the job means the pipeline could eventually run dry.

Two years ago, the federation began a campaign to recruit new officials as shortages across the country, in most sports, were at “critical mass,” according to Karissa Niehoff, the federation's executive director.

In Utah this winter, Cluff led an effort that copied Major League Baseball by having officials wearwristbands as a reminder to parents and coaches to join with officials in “keeping the focus where it should be, on the kids.”

That effort came after a number of problems in which referees were followed into locker rooms by coaches, and in two cases by parents, as well as one high-profile incident that included a coach verbally abusing an official volunteering his time at an all-star game after the season had ended. In that last case, more than 50 of the top 90 high school basketball officials boycotted the Utah County school until Cluff, school administrators, the coach and officials could figure out a solution.

Cluff said pay raises have helped increase in the number of officials in Utah, but the trick will be convincing them to stay.

Grover said many leagues use older players to officiate younger players, as a way to build the officiating ranks in the same way sports develop athletes. “My 11-year-old daughter had to confront parents at a game, and she threw a guy out,” he said.

But that is asking a lot of most officials, especially the youngest and least experienced.

“We’re not getting the pipeline of officials that we need to have,” Smith said. “A lot of kids would sign up because it’s a great way to help pay for their own hockey. But you can only officiate the lower age groups, and why would kids want to subject themselves to that?”

All of the leagues and schools contacted by the Deseret News reported taking a long list of precautions to try and keep these problems from escalating into physical assaults or fights.

“It’s getting much worse,” Smith said. “Look at what high schools do. They separate parents, separate fans and hire security. And there are still problems.”

The real cost of abusive, out-of-control parents, however, is most often paid by the child they love and the coaches and league officials serve.

“The ones who suffer from this are the kids,” Smith said. “The kids are so embarrassed.”

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That's what Olsen witnessed when the young players cried during the March 2 confrontation between hockey parents. Wilking said the man police removed from the arena in handcuffs told them he was the father of one of the players.

“It’s so interesting, before every game, I listen to the statement from the UHSAA about sportsmanship, and I pause when I hear it,” Robins said. “I wonder, ‘Who is really listening?’

"(Sports) are so valuable to all of us, the experiences kids have in activities, we know that it has a positive impact on them and their future. But then parents get so emotion, get out of control … it’s unfortunate.”