Wanderings – Spectators and respect in sport

Harry Maguire is a professional English football (soccer) player who plays at the highest level of competition. Maguire has competed for England in the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups. He has played for top Premier League clubs Hull City, Leicester City, and currently plays for Manchester United. Manchester United is a globally recognized football club. Even people who know nothing about the game – can name that team.

I am not a fan of THAT team – in fact I consider the team the Toronto Maple Leafs of soccer. Unfortunately for me, one of my kids is a giant United fan so I must temper my disdain.

Harry Maguire is a talented footballer who has recently been unlucky. He was the captain of Manchester United until recently, and he has picked up a run of errors – unlucky errors. Those errors have made Maguire the butt of jokes for those who follow the sport, and by those who dislike the team.

Maguire has managed to accumulate a number of goals scored on his own net – own goals or OG as they are called. These are not simple deflections of the soccer ball off the player. An own goal is when a defending player deliberately plays the ball, but it goes into their own team’s goal. It happens. Sports – like life – is not perfect. Sometimes you have a bad day at the office. Maguire has had many bad days recently. Spectators at games have let him know about it, and the abuse has become atrocious.

As a non-fan of that team, I admit to chuckling about their misfortunes. I remind my son that my team (West Ham United) is currently having better success, and make the odd joke. That is within the confines of the family environment. Sadly the abuse publicly made against the athlete has been far worse. This is not an isolated incident. From fans throwing objects at players during matches, to yelling racial slurs, swearing, and other verbal abuse. This is not a soccer-only issue though, nor is it a professional-only problem. These issues are permeating throughout all sports and becoming ingrained in sports culture.

My kids never played hockey, but I have spent a lot of time in arenas at games. I’ve been at ball diamonds, soccer pitches, and basketball courts. It’s getting worse in all sports – and it’s not just players who are getting this. Referees and coaches are also getting a level of abuse thrown at them like never before. It’s not every game or match, but it is increasing, and it needs to stop.

When coaching soccer, I’ve questioned a referee’s call from time to time. But there’s a respect for the position there. You can question a call, or ask for the reason for a call, and not tell the referee off. In your mind, you may be thinking a few colourful things to say, but you don’t open your mouth and say them. People aren’t thinking before they speak or act though.

Maybe, at professional sports levels, certain spectators believe that paying $150 for a hockey ticket, or $85 for a baseball ticket, gives them the right to yell at players when they don’t do well. It doesn’t.

If the price tag is used as the rationale for poor spectator behaviour, what is the excuse in youth sports – registration fee costs?

Again, no. Paying $70, $700 or $7,000 for your kid to play sports does not give you the right to yell at the referees, swear at the coaches, or in some cases break into fist fights with other parents in the stands. Who are the adults in those situations?

I’ve refereed soccer games and messed up calls. Parents have yelled at me, and I ignore it. I’m also an adult and don’t worry about some calls from the sidelines. But in youth sports, referees are usually not much older than the players in the game. Hurling comments doesn’t help those referees want to stay doing that job.

Most parents, and most spectators are great. Like bad apples, it’s that one per cent that sours the batch. Whether it’s professional sports, youth sports, or just recreation, the bad apples need to stop thinking that they have the right to say what they want, do what they want, abuse who they wish, without consequences. Respect in sport means respecting everyone involved in that sport: players, coaches, referees, and spectators. Not addressing issues may have lasting consequences for those who enjoy what they do, and for their mental health. Do better, please.

This column was originally published in the September 27, 2023 print edition of the Morrisburg Leader.