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The WIAA's code of conduct template for high school athletic events. 

This, the third part of our series on the impending shortage of high school sports officials, was supposed to shed light on some of the newer area referees and umpires and their experiences.

There are quite a few officials in a variety of sports that live in Janesville and the surrounding area. Several others graduated from Janesville Parker or Craig high schools.

The problem is, most of them weren’t interested in discussing the topic.

One declined to be interviewed. Another, when contacted early this week, indicated they would answer questions later in the week but never did. Others did not return calls and voicemails seeking comment.

I wasn’t looking to dig up dirt. I was simply hoping getting some younger officials’ thoughts and experiences might help other young prospects decide to register and get licensed as a WIAA official. While the WIAA said its total number of officials has remained nearly level in recent years, nationally just two in 10 prep officials last through their third season.

None of the local officials contacted gave a specific reason to not be a part of the project. But the only logical reason in my eyes seems to be that officials take enough grief on the fields and courts and aren’t interested in fanning any flames in a public setting.

If that is indeed the case, that’s pretty sad.

Chris Nicholson, a three-sport official for the past two decades and the person in charge of scheduling officials for sporting events in the School District of Janesville, told us this week he believes poor sportsmanship and fan behavior—almost solely from adult fans—is the biggest reason officials hang up their whistles.

Nicholson and the WIAA’s Joan Gralla told us there are several other reasons, including pay and more and more officials deciding to officiate just one sport and then hitting the AAU circuits outside of the high school seasons.

Those are factors with no easy solutions. Many school districts would love to pay officials more money but are handcuffed by budgets. And convincing some officials to step away from the sport they love most to work others likely isn’t going to happen.

Policing fan behavior is a much more controllable situation, and one that would likely keep officials in the game.

Schools are required to read a WIAA sportsmanship pledge at events before player introductions. Some conferences have mandated that student-athletes are to read the pledge.

At Orfordville Parkview, one student-athlete from each participating school work together to read the pledge. The Trailways Conference, of which Parkview is a member, is working on a plan to have student-athletes recite locally written pledges and not just the boilerplate edition from the WIAA guidelines.

Every other area conference should follow suit. It’s clear in some situations the voice of a veteran PA announcer is falling on deaf ears.

Beyond that, policing poor fan behavior must come at the local level. The WIAA does, however, have a list of suggestions—to school boards, school administrations, coaches, student-athletes, spectators, cheeleaders and AP announcers—on its website.

Among the suggestions to administrators—who are chiefly responsible for handling situations during a specific game or contest—is attending events to provide examples of sportsmanship, providing appropriate supervisory personnel at events and applying sportsmanship expectations uniformly and consistently.

In the past couple years, I’ve seen a handful of adult fans or parents ejected from events for poor behavior and bad sportsmanship. Many, many more probably could have been ejected in that time.

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. Ejecting one or two spectators early in the season would surely set the tone.

And if that keeps one or two officials from quitting, it’ll be well worth it.

Other ideas from local officials—including adding coaching and officiating to the curriculum or getting refs and umps in front of student-athletes to encourage them to join the ranks when the play days are over—are certainly also good options. So, too, are national, state and local campaigns to try to drum up interest.

But more than anything, at a time when high school sports need officials more than ever, we cannot continue to allow poor sportsmanship and fan behavior to be a main factor in their departures.

Eric Schmoldt is sports editor of The Gazette. Email him at eschmoldt@gazettextra.com

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