High school sports have a sportsmanship problem, and we’re not talking about student athletes.

The parents of some players are making life miserable for referees, who’d prefer to quit rather than put up with the abuse. Who can blame them? High school refs certainly aren’t in it for the money. In this region, they make only between $40 and $65 per contest, depending on the conference and skill level.

A three-part Gazette series on an impending referee shortage puts much of the blame on parents who harangue referees during games and sometimes even after the game’s finished. It’s small wonder only 20 percent of officials return for their third year of officiating, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

As a result, fewer officials are in the pipeline to replace outgoing veterans. It’s not a crisis yet, but it could become one in about five years.

Unruly parents are ruining a major incentive—a love for sports and the community—for young people to enter officiating.

“Most officials work all day long; they have full-time jobs,” said Chris Nicholson, secretary to the Janesville School District athletic director. “They have a whole lot better things they could be doing than getting screamed at.”

This shortage could be solved instantly if every parent who thinks he or she knows better than a referee signed up to become a referee. Unfortunately, many parents who harass officials are too self-absorbed to realize they are the problem.

A perfect storm of sorts has fueled this rise in unruly parents. For one, society as a whole has become more impolite. Many years ago, men wore dress shirts and ties while attending professional baseball games. Nowadays many people don’t even bother dressing up for church. They have less respect for institutions and authority figures.

Social media has perhaps accelerated this cultural decline by rewarding bad behavior with attention. The way to stand out on Twitter, for example, is to call names and make outlandish statements. An interesting social experiment would be to track whether parents behaving badly at events are the same ones sending out nasty tweets and making inappropriate posts to Facebook. They probably are.

Another possible contributing factor is the quasi-professionalization of high school sports. The stakes are getting higher and higher, both for athletes and parents. Many parents spend a lot of time and money shuttling their kids from practice to practice—often all year long for a single sport. Belligerent parents might also think thousands of dollars in scholarship money are riding on their kids’ performance, and they’re sure as heck not going to let a ref’s bad call hold back their children.

To prevent a referee shortage from getting worse, high school administrators will need to address both ends of the problem. They’ll need to create better incentives, perhaps starting with higher pay. More important, they’ll need to crack down more aggressively on parents’ bad behavior.

In his April 7 column on the topic, Gazette Sports Editor Eric Schmoldt hit on part of the solution: “I’d encourage administrators not to be concerned about looking like the bad guy by kicking out the bad guy, or gal, as the situation might be. Go ahead and set a precedent that constantly harping on officials will not be tolerated.”

To be sure, protecting the integrity of high school sports is more important than protecting the feelings of parents who scream and shout at refs during games.

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