December 8, 2022

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Players, fans: Be good sports again

Opinion editor’s note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.

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A quick Google search for out-of-control youth sports fans turns up multiple videos of despicable behavior across the country. Adult spectators attacking officials. Fans fighting fans. Kids taunting opposing teams.

And Minnesota is no different. Locally, there have been incidents in which fans have thrown things onto playing fields or followed refs after games to intimidate them. Alleged racist taunting and harassment at teen hockey and basketball games led two suburban metro districts to refuse to play against the other school.

Disruptive, ugly incidents happen all too often these days. The offensive behavior detracts from the joy and fun of the games and sets horrible examples for young participants and fans. Students should be able to compete and spectators able to enjoy youth sports in a safe and respectful environment.

To that end, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) is rightly working with coaching, sports authorities and education groups to address the problem. They’re developing student listening sessions with the goal of setting protocols for student behavior.

The league is also discussing requiring additional reporting from its member schools about all kinds of disruptions at events. Currently, most information about the incidents is anecdotal or from social media. It should be collected to understand the full scope of the problem.

MSHSL Executive Director Erich Martens has reminded member schools that they have the authority to eject unruly fans from games and bar them from attending future events. Violators could be charged with trespassing and, in cases of physical violence, with assault.

Martens told an editorial writer that the League has established a diversity, equity and inclusion committee to work on a collective set of expectations for conduct at games.

As the Star Tribune Editorial Board previously commented, it’s understandable that until now individual schools have been mostly responsible for handling these incidents. Yet when standards aren’t enforced, it’s wrong that some teams have to choose between sitting out games or putting up with racist abuse. Nor is it fair for teams to have to forfeit games and possibly tournament play because other players and teams — or their supporters — are disrespectful.

As part of its ongoing discussions, the MSHSL should explore tougher rules to hold schools accountable for seeing that there are consequences for offending players and spectators.

Last month, a state lawmaker proposed legislation that would impose civil fines of up to $1,000 against those who disrupt games. Rep. John Huot, DFL-Rosemount, offered the bill to better protect officials, coaches and players. The measure was approved by a House committee but is now stalled and likely won’t be considered further this session. That’s a missed opportunity.

Huot told an editorial writer that he has been a youth football and basketball referee for two decades and has seen the problem get worse in recent years. He said the state is losing good officials who quit because of the harassment and abuse. The shortage of officials is a growing concern in Minnesota and nationwide.

“We shouldn’t have to legislate this, but unfortunately we need to go that level,” Huot said. “Youth sports should be about having a good experience — that’s what officials try to do. But we’re having more people using profanity, vulgar terms, threats, racial epithets and physical violence. … It’s ruining the experience for everyone.”