Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Today I’m going to abuse my (I assume) widely read and admired column here, on Colorado Politics.  (Ed: what now? Um…) 

I write today about the compelling evidence of declining personal responsibility standards in civil behavior. You know, I’m talking about rude people. Happily, this is about an issue that everyone should be able to get behind, in a truly bipartisan show of unity, to craft new legislation in Denver next year. Yes, I know the legislative session just ended for 2019, but a recent event in Lakewood compels me to write and proselytize about an increasing problem here in Colorado and around the nation – the abuse of, and subsequent shortage of, sports officials.

The recent video of the brawl between parents of little league kids at a children’s baseball game brought the issue of our sports officials, and the abuse they suffer, into clear focus. In that clip, you see a fight that resulted, if you can believe it, when the 13-year-old umpire stopped the game between 7-year-olds to admonish an adult to stop dropping f-bombs. As the young man noted, "It was kind of weird, I shouldn't have to tell a grown man how to act around little kids." Think about that for a minute.

They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. And so today, I propose a first step on the thousand-mile journey toward civility in public discourse. I’m talking, of course, about the bully with a bully pulpit, Donald Trump. I propose that the next legislative session see a bill offered that would raise the penalties for abuse toward sports officials from a tiny misdemeanor to a felony, following the example of Ohio. You wonder why I care about this issue? 

Well, I’m a zebra. That is to say, I’m a high school football and basketball official, and you would be stunned to hear the abuse hurled at me and my fellow officials on a weekly basis. We joke about it, but I’ve got friends for whom it got bad enough that they requested an escort to their cars after a game. In my last game of the previous season, one father hectored me and my crew in the vilest terms, as we walked off the field. As it happened, he disagreed with a particular ruling because he didn’t know that high school kids have very different rules than does the NFL. Nonetheless, he screamed obscenities. Oh, and Colorado ranks almost dead last in the pay given to such officials, even further demotivating refs. We lose about 10% every year, feeling the abuse is not worth it. In one state, 70% of soccer officials quit after one year.

Many have written about the emboldening of uncivil behavior. When you have a national leader, like our president, who regularly engages in name calling and petty, childish behaviors, can it surprise too many of us that some on the farther right feel inspired to take such abuse to the next level?

Come out on a Friday evening in the fall, or better yet, to a 7thor 8thgrade game on a Wednesday afternoon or a JV game, where the abuse is often worse than the varsity level. You are likely to see behaviors that, if occurring in your own home, would cause you to ban the individual from your property. 

I honestly can’t only blame Trump for it, as I was yelled at when Obama was president. But it does seem to me that the entire nation is now a less civil place, and that’s a pity. There are lots of steps left on my thousand-mile hike of idealism, and there are good and fine people out there who are nice to us. But the tone of especially parents in the stands has changed markedly from the years when I was attending events as a father and not as an official.

I must say, I do take encouragement from Colorado’s two presidential candidates, former Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Bennet, both of whom I know personally as good and kind and smart people. But on the GOP side, it seems to be that attack and ridicule are the primary methods of communications, such as Senate GOP leader Sen. Mitch McConnell’s recent mocking of Jon Stewart’s call for 9/11 first responder health care funding.

So, getting back to Colorado politics (Ed: finally!) I do think that legislation to help protect sports officials from rank abuse is an excellent bipartisan idea that would both model good behaviors while actually helping to mitigate a significant problem. Now if you will excuse me, I’ve got to iron my penalty flags.

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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