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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Umpires’ body camera use reflection of society

The Columbian
Published: May 22, 2024, 6:03am

There is an old saying that character is what you do when nobody is watching. But what about these days, when cameras are watching seemingly everywhere?

That is a question that cuts a broad swath through society. And it comes to mind with a recent story about several local high school baseball and softball umpires wearing body cameras during games.

The reason? Game officials for high school and youth sports have reported an increase in unruly behavior among athletes, coaches and fans. “It’s become a lot more personal and more violence-based,” one umpire told Columbian reporter Meg Wochnick.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association — which governs high school sports in the state — and the Washington Officials Association have equipped a handful of game officials with body cameras, which cost $500 apiece.

The cameras are for reviewing questionable behavior, not replays of officiating decisions. And hopefully, officials say, they can prevent unruly behavior before it occurs. “They just ask more questions and are making a lot less statements,” one umpire said of coaches. “It starts more of a dialogue instead of a confrontation.”

Confrontations have contributed to a decline in the number of people willing to officiate high school events in all sports. Organizers routinely report a shortage of officials; it can be, after all, a thankless job that becomes less attractive as abuse intensifies.

In that regard, high school sports reflect a gradual breakdown of societal norms that is evident in other facets of American life. Trust in institutions — think of verbal and physical attacks on citadels of government, public education, even public libraries — has precipitously declined, violating our social contract and heralding a shift in American decorum.

This is not unprecedented. Sociologists detail occasional breakdowns in social standards; as columnist David Brooks wrote for The Atlantic in 2020: “These moments share certain features. People feel disgusted by the state of society. Trust in institutions plummets. Moral indignation is widespread. Contempt for established power is intense.”

Incidents of indignation and contempt are well-documented, threatening the foundations of our democracy. And questions remain about the United States’ ability to reestablish shared values and a sense of normalcy.

In his 1981 book “American Politics: Promise of Disharmony,” Samuel Huntington argued the United States undergoes periods of raging disillusion every 60 years or so. He presciently predicted a period of discord in the mid-2020s. “The dominant political creed constitutes a standing challenge to the power of government and the legitimacy of political institutions,” Huntington wrote. “Political authority is vulnerable in America as it is nowhere else.”

Among the characteristics common to previous social breakdowns: “Hostility toward power was intense, with the central issue of politics often being defined as ‘liberty versus power.’”

That can be accompanied, sociologists say, by anti-social acts, whether at school board meetings, in congressional committees or at high school sporting events.

“We’re seeing more and more of that, and it’s really unfortunate,” said Mick Hoffman, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association.

The addition of body cameras for officials is a welcome development, hopefully enhancing the atmosphere at sporting events and providing a layer of protection for referees. But the larger question involves how we arrived at a situation where they are necessary.