Before every game, players and coaches line up, and the announcer reads a message over the PA system.
“Good sportsmanship is valued by the Mason City Community Schools. We are pleased you chose to support your team this evening. Please do so by refraining from negative yells or comments directed at athletes, coaches, fans, and officials or other negative acts.”
It comes before the national anthem, and by now, it’s just white noise as the spectators continue their chatter at a basketball game.
When entering Mason City High School’s gym, there’s a piece of paper hanging on the wall saying, “Remember to show good sportsmanship!”
And there’s a method to the madness, an online system that the Iowa High School Athletic Association implemented in 2009 to help schools keep track of their own sportsmanship.
It goes like this: each official who leaves a baseball, football, wrestling, boys basketball and boys soccer game rates the coaches, athletes, student spectators and adult spectators of every game on a scale of 1-4 (1 is excellent; 4 is unacceptable).
Below the numerical ratings is a list of options officials can check to record what they saw, ranging from “courteous and respectful throughout the contest” to “use of abusive gestures.”
The ratings are made available online 30 days after the sports event to athletic directors at each school. From there, it’s up to them to take action. There are no ramifications by the IHSAA if schools receive poor ratings. The state does not review them.
“It gives them an opportunity to be proactive throughout the season,” IHSAA assistant executive director Todd Tharp said. “There’s an accountability aspect of it: we have high expectations of sportsmanship throughout our high schools, and there are certain things that are not allowed. We tell people there shouldn’t be negative chants, we don’t like to hear booing, (and) we’re about cheering positive.”
The Globe Gazette obtained and examined the sportsmanship ratings for the last two football seasons, and last year’s basketball and wrestling seasons for all 23 North Iowa area high schools.
While these are used as merely feedback tools for the schools, none of the schools in North Iowa received substantially negative ratings. The online system replaced a previous paper ratings system in hopes of providing more efficient feedback.
IHSAA information director, Budd Legg, says the paper version of the ratings started in the mid-1970s to address concern over technical fouls and ejections.
“Once the sportsmanship ratings began, those two things went down," Legg said. "We started them in football in the early '90s, and the coach ejections and players being ejected started going down.”
Legg says the accountability factor of being watched is effective. Coaches and athletic directors know they’re going to receive higher ratings if there were substantial cases of unsportsmanlike conduct throughout the season.
The online implementation of the ratings was supposed to be seen “as close to immediate feedback as you can get,” according to Tharp.
But the 30-day lag after each event only allows athletic directors to see feedback midway to the end of the season. Athletic directors interviewed by the Globe Gazette said they check their ratings at the end of the season or school year. By then, they already know about any potential conflicts.
“Everybody has their own situations and things that happen that they have to deal with on an individual basis,” Clear Lake Athletic Director Dale Ludwig said. “That might be why people don’t look at them.”
Chad Moore, the athletic director and head football coach at Forest City, says it’s nice to see how officials perceive his school, but also questions the usefulness of the ratings.
“I think there’s a lot of variables that can play into why the ratings change. Could be the luck of the draw with the officials, young or experienced, your history with them, having the skill level on being able to communicate with coaches and personality differences,” Moore said.
“But the one heading I don’t pay attention to is ‘questioning the officials.’ That’s so vague; that’s all on officials’ perception. If I ask the official a question, is that ‘questioning’ or if I berate, is that ‘questioning?’”
Forest City’s football coaches received a 2.14 this past season, which were acceptable ratings. But Moore says there’s always room for improvement, and he sees that with or without the ratings.
“I want to make sure there’s no vulgar language...even if I’m not at an event, usually coaches self-report. I think we do some good self-reflecting on those behaviors,” Moore said.
Algona showed the best overall average ratings from the reports gathered. But Shelly TerHark, the athletic director and head volleyball coach, didn’t check the ratings regularly either. She emphasized the importance of relationships between schools in North Iowa.
“I think we have talked about this as an athletic director conference group," TerHark said. "I really feel the athletic directors in our conference instill a lot of support to one another."
Ken Robbins, the head of North Iowa officials, says the positive ratings by North Iowa schools are evidence that the ratings work.
“Understand that you may have one or two, possibly three, incidents in a season where you go across all the sports from August through May, or summer with baseball and softball,” Robbins said. “But North Iowa, it’s really one of the greatest places in the country to officiate.”
Dan Dingman, a North Iowa official for basketball and football, thinks that sportsmanship ratings aren't what's making the difference.
“The change that I see is in athletic directors and coaches," Dingman said. "They set the culture and the atmosphere.”
Mason City received acceptable sportsmanship ratings during the 2016 football season, but there was room for improvement.
“We had some long talks," Mason City athletic director Bob Kenny said. "My head coach Matt Berkley really takes sportsmanship seriously."
In 2016, Mason City held double-digit tallies for argumentative attitude concerning official’s decisions, four instances of abusive language and three for abusive gestures. In 2017, the numbers decreased by more than 60 percent in the argumentative attitude category and halved in abusive language category.
Berkley took action in the offseason. He held one-on-one meetings with each of his assistant coaches to improve. The main issue was communication with officials; assistant coaches had moments of overstepping their boundaries.
“In 2016, a lot of [assistant] coaches would talk to the officials during the game,” Berkley said. “We talked about their role is not to talk to the officials, and I will handle it from there."
Berkley said that the younger assistants have the kids' best interest in mind, but had to learn how to convey their intentions appropriately.
Robbins, head of North Iowa officials, says that younger coaches just need time to experience more scenarios in the rule book.
“You’d be surprised as how many may not know the correct interpretation of a certain rule,” Robbins said. “Once they get into it for 10-15 years, they’ll get into that.”
West Hancock’s overall ratings ranged between excellent and acceptable, but also made improvements where they were needed: in the stands.
“I think a lot of adult fans have their own children playing, and I think they take too much into it instead of letting their own children decide the ball games,” Robbins said. "They get too involved themselves."
West Hancock Athletic Director Steve Lansing says he checks the ratings at the end of the year, but most of the time, makes his own evaluations by being present at the games.
“We move ourselves around throughout the game, and sometimes the officials tell if they get out of hand,” Lansing said. “We adjust ourselves accordingly to where that’s coming from. If we are present in the area or visible, then most people won’t make mistakes.”
Lansing said that the ratings are a good point of reference and occasional spikes could be because one year's senior class may behave differently from the one prior.
Every official is different, and therefore, their relationship with a school is different. Officials have a voice through the ratings to call attention to good and questionable nights. But they also have freedom to navigate around places they don’t have the best relationships with.
“There’s some gyms where you know you’re going to have a rough night,” Dingman said. “Some schools need to take that feedback – the only thing we can do is accept or decline games.”
Michael Crozier, the superintendent for Northwood-Kensett schools, serves on the advisory board for the IHSAA. But for 16 years, Crozier has also spent time on the basketball courts of North Iowa as an official. And that time has been well-spent.
“I’ve never declined an assignment because of a sportsmanship issue in a previous year; we all get better when we face adversity to go back and work with those people,” Crozier said. “Ninety-five percent of the time, when you go out in a season, everything is good and it’s ‘1’ rankings every night.”
As the routine sportsmanship announcement concludes, the starting lineups are announced.
The whistle blows and the clock changes. The officials start to take their notes.