Two weeks ago, I was in the stands at Verona Area High School watching Madison Memorial's boys basketball team assert its will over Minnesota's Minnetonka High. Across the aisle from me, a middle-aged man in an immaculate Minnetonka hat was not appreciative of the officiating.
"Come on! That was a foul!" he bellowed aggressively. "When are you gonna start callin' 'em both ways?"
The referee was only about 12 feet away. The man in the hat wasn't simply venting; he was trying to affect the direction of the game through intimidation.
Worse, the man's verbal energy was dedicated entirely to turning up the heat on the refs. He didn't once offer an encouraging word to the team he supported, which presumably included someone close to him, possibly his son. He had driven five hours in less-than-ideal weather to make an ass of himself in public. If it weren't a bit tragic, it might be laughable.
Finally, in the third quarter, one of the scorers turned around and asked the guy to quiet down. At first, he was incredulous.
"I'm not yelling at the kids," he protested, as though this made all the difference. "I'm yelling at the stripes."
It wasn't the first time I've seen grownups behaving badly at a high school basketball game. But in about 60 such games over the last six years, it was the first time I've seen anyone get called on it.
Mr. Minnetonka's shtick reminded me of a game between Memorial and Middleton during the 2005-06 season. Middleton narrowly led the Spartans, then ranked number one in the state, at halftime. But instead of cheering like crazy for their kids as they headed to the locker room, a knot of Middleton parents chose to scream at the refs instead.
A lot of these people make it to as many games as they can and consider themselves supportive. They appear to be successful, educated, middle-class professionals who likely teach their kids to be respectful and polite. Evidently, that all goes out the window after a questionable charge is whistled.
"I can tell you it's getting worse," says Dave Kapp, the new athletic director for Madison East and La Follette high schools. "Just today, I've dealt with everything from parents being rude to ticket takers to the chant of 'Sieve! Sieve! Sieve!' at a hockey game. Sadly enough, it's often the parents who are responsible for a lot of the misbehavior."
Coaches like East's Rich Cleveland or Memorial's Steve Collins can certainly get pretty demonstrative in the heat of the moment. But they make it clear that dealing with the refs is the coach's job, not the players'. It's not the parents' job, either, Kapp reminds.
"I just had to write a little article in my Madison East parent newsletter," he says. "It was a note to parents telling them to let the refs ref and the players play and let's just sit in the stands and cheer for our team and not boo the other team. I'm new, so I was concerned that it might be harsh, but [school officials] said, 'No, print it. It needs to be heard.'"
Kapp has only been on the job a few months and is dealing with the challenges of splitting his time between two buildings. He's still testing the terrain when it comes to dealing with parents.
"I came from West Allis, where we had parents banned from conference events because they were so brutal," he says.
Before such drastic steps prove necessary, maybe some of these parents should be urged to take direction from their counterparts in the student section.
Just before the Minnetonka game, a group of costumed Memorial students adopted a player from the opposing team who was warming up just in front of them. As he nailed one shot after another from behind the three-point line, the students grew more and more enthused. When he finally missed one, they collapsed into each other with mock exasperation. Then they reached out and eagerly offered up high fives to the opposing player.