Column: There's a troubling new game in town: attack the ref
Usually, we come to criticize referees, umpires and those who officiate the games we play.
Today, we come to give them props for the thankless job they do.
And, more important, to plead for their protection.
Unless you've gone off the grid the past few months, it's impossible to miss what seems to be a disturbing new sport.
Attack the referee.
From a high school official in Texas who was blindsided and speared by not one but two football players, to a referee in Pennsylvania who was head-butted by a basketball coach, to an NHL linesman who was cross-checked by a player in a game just last week, the acts of violence are shocking.
Enough is enough.
For starters, the punishment much be swift and severe, as it was when the NHL doled out a 20-game suspension to Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman for slamming into linesman Don Henderson - an attack that Wideman blamed on being woozy from a big hit but looked at the very least like a frustrated player who took out his anger on an unsuspecting official.
The suspension will cost Wideman some $565,000 in salary.
''That sounds like a pretty good number to me,'' said Barry Mano, founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials. ''You just can't be putting your hands on sports officials.''
Mano's group, which works with officials at all levels, has been dealing with its own serious issues - so much so that one of the options when you call its Wisconsin headquarters is ''assault information.''
In October, a football referee was hit from behind by one player, sending him sprawling to the turf, before another player dove into his back helmet-first. Caught on video, it was clearly a premeditated act of violence, one that the players said was ordered by an assistant coach from their San Antonio school.
Last month, during a prep basketball game in suburban Philadelphia, a coach arguing a disputed call late in the game suddenly lunged into an official with his forehead. Again, it was caught on video, showing what certainly appeared to be an intentional attack if not one planned out in advance.
''I think we tend to be a little less civil toward each other today, we want to question authority more than ever, and we're a little less forgiving,'' Mano said Friday. ''Sports is simply life with the volume turned up. By those measures, why are we surprised by this?''
Especially in light of the barrage of negative comments that officials receive at the highest levels, delivered on a daily basis by 24-hour sports talk radio, TV commentators with plenty of air time to fill, and social media outlets where the gloves are really off.
''I don't know, frankly, how it gets turned down,'' Mano said. ''If we were in a courtroom listening to a case, and someone raced up to the front and socked the judge because they didn't like his ruling, we would ... be saying there's no way in our society this can be permitted. We have to make sure we reinforce that in the sports world.''
We've already seen what can happen in the worst of these cases.
In 2013, a soccer referee in Utah, Ricardo Portillo, was killed by a punch delivered by a 17-year-old player, who pleaded guilty to homicide and was sentenced to juvenile detention. Two summers ago, a soccer ref in Michigan - 44-year-old John Bieniewicz - died after being socked by an adult player who was angry at receiving a red card. The attacker, Bassel Saad, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and received up to 15 years in prison.
Scott VanderStoep has been a basketball referee for two decades. He calls high school games a couple of night a week, working around with his regular job as a dean for social services at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
While he's never felt physically threatened during a game, he acknowledges that things had gotten tougher for officials - especially at the youth and AAU levels. In fact, he will no longer work those games because he feels there's just not support for the refs.
More troubling, he's come across fewer and fewer young people who want to go into officiating.
''My daughter loves basketball. She was a pretty good high school basketball player,'' VanderStoep said. ''Last year I said, `Sweetie, we've got to get you registered so you can work some games. You're a young, athletic woman. They need women referees at these games. You would do great.'''
''All things equal, she would rather tutor someone in math than officiate a sport she loves,'' the father said. ''You know, when someone who loves basketball won't do it, who are we going to get to do it?''
That's a question we all should consider the next time we berate a referee.
These are good people doing a tough job, often for very little pay.
''Officials want to be loved just like everybody else,'' VanderStoep said, managing a chuckle.
At the very least, they shouldn't have to fear for their safety.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .