Even for such longtime observers as myself, every basketball season brings something new.
While covering a Grays Harbor College women’s basketball game a couple of months ago, I witnessed something I had never previously seen — an adult spectator being ejected from the premises.
After listening to a profanity-laced tirade directed against the officials, referee Carl Waara (a Grayland resident who doubles as a high school and community college ref) informed GHC athletic director Tyler Gaston during a timeout that he wanted the offending fan removed from Sam Benn Gym.
Gaston complied with the request. Had he not, the officials would have been empowered to delay the resumption of play until such action was taken. The spectator in question seemed surprised as Gaston escorted him from the gym but, to his credit, did not make a scene.
Like the man at the Choker game, most spectators do not realize that they are subject to sanctions at high school or college games if their behavior is deemed unacceptable. There’s even a rule in the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association handbook that covers spectator conduct.
“When team supporters become unruly or interfere with the orderly progress of the game,” the rule reads in part, “the officials shall stop the game until the host management resolves the situation and the game can proceed in an orderly manner.”
How frequently such incidents occur depends on the source.
Ken Ashlock said he had to warn an adult fan about abusive language toward officials this past season for the first time in his four years as Aberdeen High School’s athletic director. Veteran South Bend coach and athletic director Tom Sanchez said he has never witnessed a spectator ejection, although he concedes there have been times when he believes such an action would have been warranted.
But Montesano athletic director Tim Trimble recalled being involved in “three or four” ejections during his 20-year career. Waara, a former Ocosta High coach who has officiated for six years, said he has witnessed fan removals “two or three times” in high school and twice at the college level.
Sanctions against spectator conduct are admittedly tricky, since many paying customers believe the price of admission entitles them to freedom of expression. Area administrators say that argument is true only to a certain extent.
“While we do live in America, you don’t have a right to always say what you want in our building,” Trimble said. “If you’re an obnoxious fan, you will be warned. Then you’ll be asked to leave and, if (you) refuse, you will be removed by the police.”
One problem is that there are no hard-and-fast guidelines for spectator conduct. Racial and ethnic epithets are generally considered unacceptable conduct, as is repeated profanity.
“For me, profanity is the last straw,” Waara said. “If my son is there watching the game, I don’t want him to listen to somebody cussing people out.”
Beyond that, the slope can become very slippery.
“Once it starts getting personal, I think it crosses the line,” Sanchez noted. “When fans start getting on players, that crosses the line, too.”
I covered two high school games this season — one a large-school rivalry contest, the other a small-school match-up — in which I believed spectators should have been strongly warned if not ejected. In neither instance was profanity an issue, but the unrelenting verbal abuse directed toward the officials reached inappropriate levels.
Both games, in my view, were well-officiated. That’s almost beside the point to spectators of a certain mindset.
I covered a 1989 South Bend-Toutle Lake winner-to-state district boys game officiated by the late Ken Waite of Aberdeen and Dennis Eygabroad, a longtime Olympia-area ref who later became the principal of Aberdeen’s Miller Junior High School (two-man crews worked the games in those days). Both men were outstanding officials and, during a break in the action in the fourth quarter, I suddenly realized that I could not remember a single bad call in the contest.
Sparked by Keith Samplawski (now the principal and baseball coach at Lake Quinault), South Bend came from behind in the fourth quarter to pull out a tight victory. While accepting congratulations afterward, Tribe coach Dick McGovern was approached by a red-faced fan who informed him that he should have more confrontational about the officiating.
“I thought we were playing five against seven for a while there,” the fan said.
Although profanity is more commonplace in society today (as anyone who has seen a Martin Scorsese-directed movie can attest), spectator behavior isn’t appreciably worse today than in 1989. If anything, smaller crowds at high school and college games makes questionable conduct more conspicuous.
“The smaller the crowd, the easier it is to hear an individual voice,” Waara said.
“When people get upset, they’re a little more upset now,” Sanchez observed. “And now it’s showing up at lower levels of play.”
Given the delicacy of the situation, area high schools administrators probably monitor spectator conduct as well as could be expected. I’ve always believed, however, that coaches could do more in controlling unruly fans.
I’ve seen college coaches occasionally grab the public address microphone to warn disruptive spectators about their behavior. I can recall only one such instance in games I’ve covered — and it wasn’t in basketball.
During an Aberdeen High baseball game a few years ago, then Bobcat coach William Rabung told AHS rooters to pipe down after they vented their displeasure over a questionable call against the Cats.
That was a commendable and courageous act — particularly since it did appear that the umps missed the call. It also worked, as the Bobcat fans did at least momentarily silence their complaints.
One certainty is that the standard pre-game sportsmanship message delivered at many venues — “Let the players play, let the coaches coach and let the officials officiate” — is totally ineffectual. Many spectators are doing well if they fulfill the first part of the equation.
Unlike baseball, a .333 batting average in spectator conduct isn’t particularly impressive.