Referees threatened to boycott a Utah County high school after a fan allegedly punched one of them

An incident after a recent game caused officials from Skyridge, Alpine School District, the UHSAA and the Utah High School Football Officials Association to come together with a plan for referee safety.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skyridge High school in Lehi on Saturday, April 1, 2023.

A body of nearly 500 high school football referees threatened to boycott working games at Skyridge High School after a fan allegedly punched one of them in the back of the head earlier this month. As a result, officials from various bodies came up with a plan to address referee safety at the school.

The incident occurred after Pleasant Grove upset the then-undefeated Falcons in overtime on Oct. 6. As the five referees walked off the field, fans allegedly threw bottles of liquid at them. One fan then allegedly punched a referee in the back of the head, officials from the Utah High School Activities Association and Utah High School Football Officials Association told The Salt Lake Tribune.

The Lehi Police Department is investigating.

“Alpine School District is aware of an incident that occurred following a high school football game earlier this month,” a district spokesperson told The Tribune. “Both participating schools have cooperated with local law enforcement as they have conducted an investigation. Additionally, the schools support the plan created by the Utah High School Activities Association, who sponsors high school extracurricular activities.

“We encourage all community members to exhibit good sportsmanship as they attend student athletic events.”

Throughout the game, fans booed the referees as they disagreed with several calls, per a video of the game posted online. A touchdown ruled an incomplete pass before halftime, penalty calls in the third and fourth quarters and overtime that led directly to Pleasant Grove touchdowns — the last of which secured the victory for Pleasant Grove.

The Falcons faithful’s ire reached a boiling point when the game ended, their boos overpowering the exultation of the Vikings fans.

As a result of the incident, Skyridge agreed to take certain measures to ensure referee safety moving forward. Four uniformed police officers will escort referees off the field at halftime and after games. Additionally, the area where referees enter and exit the field will be changed so they are not in close proximity to fans.

When Jared Youngman, joint board president for the officials association and a ref since 1999, heard what happened at the end of Skyridge vs. Pleasant Grove, he wanted to take action to ensure referee safety moving forward.

“When this situation happened, it became apparent that something had to be done and we needed to step in and make sure that whatever was being done was agreed upon with us,” Youngman said.

An initial plan from Skyridge was unsatisfactory to Youngman, he said. So he decided it would be best if the entire officials association “block” Skyridge, meaning none of them would officiate their games. He said he notified the school district and Jeff Cluff, who oversees officiating at the UHSAA, of the officials association’s plan.

Youngman and Cluff had conversations the following week. Then on Wednesday, Oct. 11, a meeting was held that included Youngman, Cluff, Skridge athletic director Jon Lehman, Alpine School District officials, the Skyridge principal and assistant principal, and Brennan Jackson, who oversees football at the UHSAA. Youngman said the meeting lasted at least 75 minutes.

“When I left the meeting, after having that conversation with everybody, I felt good about how the meeting ended,” Youngman said. “I feel good about the plan that was put in place.”

Youngman advised the officials in the association to lift their block on Skyridge, and said he would personally be doing so. But he understood if the five officials who worked the Oct. 6 game didn’t, he said.

Poor referee treatment has been an issue for years across the country in multiple sports. Much of the issue lies in fans and coaches verbally berating refs for calls they disagree with. The National Federation of High Schools instituted a program called #BenchBadBehavior that includes a toolkit for every state that includes flyers, sample pregame announcements and other materials meant to curtail outbursts against refs.

While fans have clearly been getting too vociferous with their words, recent data suggests that a growing problem is physical altercations against referees.

“It’s uncommon, but it is becoming more common,” Cluff said. “There are several occasions where, especially in our youth leagues and in other places, where physical contact with an official occurs.”

In the 2023 National Officiating Survey, which polled referees from all over the country, 87.5% said they felt they were treated unfairly by spectators. In Utah alone, that number was 86.8%.

The report also said 5.7% of officials reported being assaulted by a fan during or after a game. In Utah, that number was 7.4%.

More than half (57.1%) of officials in Utah said they felt unsafe or feared for their safety due to administrator, player, coach or spectator behavior. Across the country, slightly less than half (49.3%) reported feeling unsafe or fearing for their safety.

Youngman said the five referees that worked Skyridge vs. Pleasant Grove each made $90. It’s a job most take on because they love football, Youngman said. He added that when he spoke to those officials in the aftermath of the incident, they questioned why they were refereeing games and felt they did not deserve that kind of treatment.

“Ninety bucks to get stuff thrown at them, to have one official get hit — assaulted,” Youngman said. “Ninety dollars to have, really in one way, to have fear of your life of what’s going to happen. It’s not worth it anymore.”

Youngman said spectators need to understand that referees are human beings and have lives outside of officiating games.

“We have to realize that this is just a game,” Youngman said.

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