A year ago, no one would have guessed that Noah Bjerke-Wieser was the right messenger with the right message in the right place. He was too young, too bold, and he picked the wrong platform. Given that his plea for respect and sportsmanship extended beyond his hometown and across the nation proves that we all would have guessed wrong.
As in cities large and small, Noah’s basketball team at La Crescent-Hokah High School in southeastern Minnesota has a passionate fan base. Residents of La Crescent, population 5,000, cheer when the Lancers win, commiserate when they lose. And when a questionable call doesn’t go their way, they let the refs know it − maybe a little too harshly at times.
To be fair, La Crescent’s fans are not alone. Nearly 20% of referees nationwide quit every year because of taunting and abuse. But in a smaller town like La Crescent, a shortage of officials can be especially acute. The fans and players know the refs and their tendencies. And vice versa. The first home game of the 2022-23 season, for example, ended in a victory, yet officials heard jeers over calls from some La Crescent partisans.
“We weren’t happy as players about some of the calls, but it was getting rowdy from the fans, over and over,” Noah says. “It was disrespectful.”
Coach Ryan Thibodeau wasted no time, addressing the team in the locker room. “We spoke about needing to be better as a team in how we handle things that don’t go our way,” he says.
As captain, Noah felt responsible for setting the tone and preventing the ill will from escalating. So, he took the coach’s message a step further, composing a social media post. “At first, my mom tried to talk me out of it,” Noah says. “After she read it, she changed her mind a little, asking ‘Are you really sure you want to do this?'”
He was so sure that he bypassed TikTok and Instagram, where his teammates and friends would see it, and posted on Facebook. “I knew it would reach the most people, especially adults in the stands,” he says. It read, in part: “As a captain of the varsity team I would like to come out and say we need to stop yelling at the refs, us as players, and as spectators in the stands…As players and spectators, we need to let the players play, the officials officiate and the fans cheer. I know I am not perfect in this too but we need to change. I hope we can all come together as a community and change for the better.”
Noah has a relatively modest 170 friends on Facebook, but the post has been shared by five times that many people. Among them are school districts, sports teams and athletic associations across the country. “I was hoping our local community would read it,” he says. “But it blew up and kept going.” He suspects that his message carried more weight because he is so young. “If a parent or the school had sent it out, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal.”
His coach was most impressed with Noah’s leadership and fearlessness. “It’s easy when you know that a lot of people are on your side,” Ryan says. “But when you know you’re going to get pushback, and still put it out there, that’s a sign of character.” Noah’s post “sparked a better conversation with our activities director, and as the year went on, the behavior got better, from players and fans.”
This year, Noah is playing basketball at Western Technical College in nearby La Crosse, Wisconsin, but his old coach carries Noah’s message.
“You hope that players leave the program having learned a few things from you,” Ryan says. “But I’ve also learned from him how to be a better coach. Things we can learn from 16-, 17- and 18-year olds are things you don’t forget.”