"The first guy who utters a curse word, I want him ejected!" the commissioner bellowed. Then, in an exhibition game, a player muttered "s---" when he missed a tackle. He was banished to the bench. That official never worked another game in the league, which illustrates the precarious balance between which utterances are and which are not acceptable on a court or field.
Take note of the way pregame banter is delivered and the tension it evokes. Hear what is being said and take action if the talk is inflammatory or if serious threats are being issued. Try warnings first.
Sometimes jibes are tossed like Frisbees between friends. How do you know its serious? You have to know the territory. Are the teams neighborhood rivals? Is there a history between them? Are there ethnic or racial undertones? In short, you have to have your diplomatic wits about you.
If you have qualms about what you’re hearing before a game, confront the speaker and demand an explanation of his intent. If his answer doesn’t satisfy you, tell him so, and take your concerns to his coach.
When one group is clearly the better team, trouble is likely to be minimal. But when the teams are equal in strength, beware. One side may believe it can secure an advantage through put downs, which can lead to violence and game deterioration.
Context is crucial. You must be discriminatory. Analyze the context; know the language. If you’ve walked the halls of any high school lately, you’ve heard some pretty raw language used in conversation. It’s widely accepted among youthful peers.
If it is casual, comradely talk, ignore it. If it is talk to oneself, accept it. Players will often chastise themselves, sometimes with inappropriate language. You might also react differently to college players than to high school players, making younger athletes toe a more narrow line. You just cannot expect teenagers to berate their own teammates by saying "Shame on you."
Should you intervene when a player berates himself for making a mistake? You can offer him a look that says "Don’t be so harsh." Or say it out loud.
Or when a player barks at a teammate, say: "Give him a boost, not a blast." Not sarcastic. Not a put down. Not a lecture.
Sometimes just a glance, a finger to the lips, or shaking your head makes the point. A light touch on an elbow can deliver a message.
The triggering labels. What kind of language can you accept and must you deal with? Derogatory names are forbidden, but context is important. In some places it might be as innocuous a term as "clodhopper."
Most rule books forbid "baiting." The codes advise that "vulgar" and "obscene" words and phrases are illegal, as is "profanity." Participants are not to engage in "taunting," "finger-pointing" or "gestures which provoke ill will." Still, which acts qualify if open to interpretation.
Should you penalize religious slurs? Under some circumstances, yes. Deriding an opponent’s acknowledged faith may offend. However, call an Italian guy a Muslim and he'd probably laugh.
Other non-permissible terms are easier to define: any reference to sexual organs and/or activity, along with slang terms for excretory functions or substances. One official’s criterion: "If it were spray-painted on a highway overpass, would anyone be offended?"
Most of us recognize genuine taunting: shooting imaginary pistols, giving the cut-throat gesture, performing choreographed dance routines, etc. The more you allow verbal banter and taunting to escalate, the more likely you are to have a major problem.
When it typically starts. Talk aimed at opponents usually comes after the play, when players are in close proximity and the ball is dead.
If body language indicates retreat, give a warning. If it escalates into a confrontation, address the players directly. Warning again. If the name-calling occurs between the same two people later, it may warrant an official action. Again, the circumstances are critical.
No warning is necessary for "in your face" threats and accusations; those should be penalized immediately. It doesn’t even have to be vulgar language.
Interrupt condemnatory or threatening diatribes. Cut them short and penalize repeat offenders.
Compiling a dictionary. Address unsportsmanlike situations in your association and compile a dictionary, defining taboo terms, describing behaviors that will result in warnings, which should be penalized, etc.
Also try to reach a consensus on the manner in which officials will respond. Consistency is slippery when it comes to what offends us and what stimulates a breakdown in decorum.
(This column is excerpted from The Official’s Guide: Football ’98.)