Yer Outtathere! (April 3, 2002)

The reason we have an endless stream of interscholastic sports from elementary age on up is that such competition supposedly “builds character.”

Perhaps. But many parents and coaches seem far more interested in having a winning record than in building character. Why else would they act like they do? Why else would they yell at the referees, even at elementary school contests?

Sure, referees make mistakes. Sometimes many. But they’re paid peanuts if anything at all. They do their best. More importantly, what a horrible example it sets for children when adults act like whining crybabies.

I remember the last time I yelled at a referee. While home on break from college, I attended a high school wrestling match. It wasn’t going well for the home team, and I just knew the referee was at fault. I yelled. I made up nasty insults. People around me thought I was quite funny.

The whistle blew. The match stopped, and the crowd quieted down to hear the latest ruling. As the referee approached the scorer’s table, I let fly with a long string of complaints.

The referee, who knew me from my high school glory days as student manager, looked me right in the eye. He wasn’t angry. In fact, it looked like he felt sorry for me. He didn’t say a word. But the look he gave me said, “You’re better than that.”

That look shut me up that night, and for good. I felt like a fool.

Life isn’t fair. It never will be. The sooner people of any age realize that, the better. All we can do is do our best, all of the time, and accept the results, however wrong. Acceptance of life’s frequent unfairness is called adulthood.

The perfect place to teach children this important aspect of character is on the athletic floor. The only proper response to a bad break is to get up off the floor and try harder. Former Twins manager Tom Kelly understood this, and was harsh with any player who argued with an umpire.

Unfortunately, not everybody reaches adulthood. Some go through life thinking the world owes them a fair shake. These are the people who whine about their rights, file endless grievances, clog our courts with lawsuits — and yell at referees at high school sporting events.

Americans are known throughout the world for whininess and lawsuits. No other country has so many lawyers per capita. A great Australian historian once called American society a “culture of complaint.”

It is time to stop this silliness where it starts: In our schools, where children are supposed to be learning character. School boards and administrators should take the lead.

High school coaches who cross the line from discussion to argument with officials should be fired immediately. Who cares how many wins they have? If they set a bad example for the kids, they’re gone. Parents who yell at officials should be kicked off the premises.

That’ll never happen, of course. But at least the rest of the spectators could turn around and stare at the crybabies. Maybe then the whiners will catch on that they look like fools. Maybe they will, at long last, develop some character.

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