'It's personal:' Local high school refs get police escorts after threats, attacks

"It's not just booing," he said. "It's personal. It's questioning your family and (saying) 'We're gonna get you!'"
In his years as a referee, Bob Collins has seen a lot of emotion on the field and in the stands. But he says, lately, the emotion has been turning into bad behavior.

"It's not just booing," he said. "It's personal. It's questioning your family and (saying) 'We're gonna get you!'"

The security issues have been so concerning that Collins, who is president of the Northern Delaware Football Officials Association, says police now escort referees back to their cars after varsity football games.

The same could happen at junior varsity games if the spectator's behavior gets any worse. Right now, school administrators are required to walk referees to their cars after games.

Collins cited an attack that ended with a spectator being arrested a few years ago.

"We're pretty easy to spot in the parking lot," he said. "That's when you get some of those problems. 'We're following you, we know who you are.'"

It's a scenario that's been playing out at high school sporting events across the country, including in the tri-state area.

"We just started to see some nasty things happening in high school athletics," said Melissa Mertz, associate executive director of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA).

"We've had spectators follow referees to their cars. We've had them come onto competition surfaces after an official," said Mertz.

It doesn't help to retain and recruit referees who are already in short supply across the area.

"In the past, we've had anywhere from 100 to 110 (referees). And we're currently, unfortunately, down to 63," said Collins.

The PIAA is also dealing with a ref shortage and short tempers.

"We understand athletics is emotional," said Mertz. "But at the end of the day, these people are human. They have jobs. They have families. They have kids that play themselves."

She says security is usually up to individual schools and athletic directors. But in cases where schools may have a history of confrontation on or off the field, the PIAA has had to institute some changes.

"In certain areas and instances, we've had to up our security," she said.

There have also been tragedies at football games including a shooting that claimed the life of 8-year-old Fanta Bility just outside the Academy Park High School football game.

"It absolutely broke our hearts when we heard what happened," said Mertz.

The bad behavior in the stands could have several explanations-from COVID frustrations to the pressure to perform.

"Not all kids are going to get football scholarships, but all parents think they are. So there's that kind of disconnect," said Collins.

Collins adds that, oftentimes, the offenders are a small group of people who cause a disruption in the stands. Recently, PIAA tried to counteract such behavior by holding Officials Appreciation Week, showing their appreciation for referees with messages and small gestures like free hot dogs and sodas for referees.

Collins also encourages spectators to get involved in the game in a positive way by signing up to become referees here.

Officials remind spectators there are consequences for causing disruptions including personal attacks or threats to referees.

"The officials have the authority to stop the game until that individual is removed from the contest," said Mertz.

In the end, they say the student-athletes are the ones who lose this game.

"Your child is out there," said Mertz. "How embarrassing is it that you're being escorted out of the facility? You cannot watch the rest of the game because you're losing your mind in the stands."
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