Probably more so than any other time in the history of this country, the speech police are out in force. We live in an age of hyper-political correctness, where anything you might say or possibly write via social media must be analyzed to ensure that it is not (choose one: intolerant, offensive, bigoted, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, etcetera).

Yet you want to know the one people group that it’s perfectly acceptable to punish with unrelenting vitriol? Don’t worry, no hate crime is forthcoming. Berate sports officials all you want.

Oh, I know many of you are already there. I sat courtside for a slew of high school basketball games at the M.T. Rice Tournament last week, and the constant venom that fans directed at the officials disgusted me. I’d run through some of it for you, but this is a family newspaper. A lot of it was rated R.

People say things to referees and umpires that they wouldn’t say to anyone else — anywhere. They wouldn’t post such comments on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. (Maybe on Snapchat, since those comments disappear, right?)

So, why in the world is it OK to say it to a ref?

There isn’t another job in the world that permits people to heckle and criticize a worker’s job performance as that person is performing his or her job. Can you imagine if that happened at your place of work?

FAN: Hey, you, CPA guy! Your balance sheet is lopsided, bro! You don’t know your liabilities from your assets!

Many officiating governing bodies, including the Texas Association of Sports Officials, have been trying to figure out ways to recruit new members in recent years, because of a shortage of qualified officials. Some have gone so far as to label it a “crisis.”

Officials who leave the game list poor treatment from fans and coaches as the No. 1 reason for their departure, exit interviews have shown.

This doesn’t surprise me a bit. I think it’s worse than ever, especially on the high school level. Fans need to remember that those refs are giving of their time and energy, usually out of a deep love for the game. Sure, they get paid, but you’re not going to get rich officiating high school sports. And a paycheck shouldn’t preclude them being treated with respect.

Another fact to remember, or perhaps learn for the first time: They know the rules better than you. And, often, they’ve got a better view of what happened.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a fan scream “Over the back, ref!” at a basketball game when, in fact, the rebounder didn’t commit any sort of violation. (News flash: It is possible to for a player to be behind another player and outjump them for a rebound without it being “over the back.”)

Or this gem that we hear all the time in baseball and softball season: “Where was that pitch, blue?” Hmmm, might it be possible that the home plate umpire had a better angle than Mr. Backseat Crier, sitting 20 rows behind the action with an obstructed view, including the umpire’s own body?

Obviously officials get calls wrong. It happens every game. They’re not flawless. Just like the players miss shots and fumble the ball out of bounds, and coaches signal bad plays or make questionable substitutions, so too do the refs occasionally botch a call. They don’t see every foul. They don’t get everything right. But for whatever reason we’re far less forgiving with them than we are with the athletes and coaches.

I know fans are invested in these games, and that’s a good thing. That’s your little Tina or little Bubba out there on that field of play, and you don’t want a missed call hindering their chance at victory (or, more accurately, a college scholarship).

But do you really believe that an official is purposefully trying to job your team? Do you really think they favor any one school or player over another? These men and women take their roles seriously. If anything, they go out of their way to demonstrate impartiality.

In rare cases, incompetent officiating may truly cost a team a game. But screaming about it won’t solve the problem. Instead, encourage your team’s coach to fill out an incident report with either the UIL, TAPPS or the like. TASO even includes handy links for such occasions on its website.

By verbally belittling an official, one only makes a fool out of himself. It sets a terrible example for the next generation, and it completely diminishes the importance of those officials and their place in the sport. Have you ever been to a game where the officials were late? Maybe they were caught in traffic or something. I have. Guess what happens? They delay the game.

You can’t start a game without the refs.

Here’s a short list of people they don’t pause the game for — the head coach, the assistant coaches, the star player, the backup player, the water boy, the superintendent, the athletic director and the mouthy fan.

So, the next time you attend a game, take a beat and think before you berate that referee or lambaste that ump. He or she is merely trying to do a job, and your comment isn’t likely to help.

To be completely honest, I don’t always follow my own advice. Example: At that M.T. Rice tourney, I spotted a friend of mine who officiates games leaving the court at halftime, and I yelled, “Hey, ref, get it together!”

He just kept walking, probably well-practiced at tuning out the crowd.

So I hollered again, “Hey, Jason! Get it together!”

This time he turned and spotted me, and grinned.

My barb was lobbed in jest, not scorn. Jason knew that.

Wouldn’t it be nice if those officials could find a few more friendly faces in the crowd?

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