“Just let them play,” I said, loudly.
“That’s a good idea,” snapped the referee, staring me down from the baseline. I was in the front row, mid-court, and everything was a blur save the anger on his face and the echoing whispers of my wife begging me to stay quiet. She was probably right.
A moment earlier, the crowd buzzing with confusion, I had turned to those seated behind me, a collection of parents from both teams, and shared my feelings on the call that had been made. I had been loud then, too.
It was the 6th grade boys basketball championship. A player on my son’s team had just fouled out of the game, his last penalty coming on a technical immediately following the actual infraction. The foul itself was probably accurate. He’s a quick, handsy kid, tenacious and prone to contact. The technical, however, was given without pause, warning or justification.
The child had yelled the word “no” in obvious frustration to no one but himself — not the ref and not another player — just the passionate disappointment of a kid in a championship game who knew what the foul meant for his team. The ref, far too heated for the situation, with actions animated and a stance stern and challenging, issued a technical foul even before the “no” stopped bouncing upon the bright, wood floor. He stood there, striped as a zebra and puffed as a peacock, daring the boy to argue, despite the tears that flowed between them.
It was a terrible call, hence my saying so. The referee would admit as much after the game, stating to other parents that he had misheard the player, which is fair enough, but it didn’t change the fact that a grown man had overreacted in an emotional moment in a gym full of people, embarrassing a 12-year-old kid in the process.
Referees are only human, and despite their having yelled at a dad from the other team for nothing more than typical fan chatter just minutes before giving me some of the same, I truly appreciate the work they do. It is a thankless job, and often the subject of ridicule and harshness. They are there, I presume, because they care about youth sports and the integrity of the game, and not, contrary to popular belief, to be jerks to middle school kids.
It was the integrity that made me speak up.
The season had been rougher than anticipated. My son was on a team of nice kids that he hardly knew, whereas they shared years of friendship with one another. He had a hard time adjusting, and even then, in the first championship game of his young basketball career, he still admitted he wasn’t fitting in. It negatively affected his play and his attitude, noticeably so, two things I had never thought possible.
The team he was facing was filled with some of his closest friends, kids that had been to sleepovers at our house, whose voices were a regular humming from video games and group calls. Their parents sat beside me as we cheered against each other.
The point being, I wasn’t angry on behalf of my son’s team. I was angry for everyone. The game wasn’t very close at that point and, if anything, the player fouling out only guaranteed my son more playing time. Rather, I was angry like I would have been had I seen an adult berate a crying child in any setting, and I still would have said something had the kid been on the other team.
Funny enough, I actually didn’t coach this season because of parents yelling in the stands. I’m not a fan of the “win or lose” mentality, or the intensity that goes with it, and I didn’t care to spend the season on the receiving end of that attention. I believe youth sports should be fun, healthy and educational. The pride I have in my son has little to do with what he can do with a basketball. It has a lot to do with his heart and his integrity.
Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. Perhaps the referee should have collected himself. Some examples are louder than others, and lessons are learned everywhere. The basketball court is as good of a place as any.
“Just let them play,” I said, loudly.
“That’s a good idea,” said the ref. And then they did.