Mayor Callahan is on the right. Even though he's a Democrat. Ba dum bum.
Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan's sometimes brash style may help him persuade voters and city council members, but it also got him kicked out of a high school wrestling tournament over the weekend.
Callahan, one of the Lehigh Valley's most prominent Democrats, was ejected Saturday night from the District 11 wrestling tournament at Liberty High School after shouting at referee Dennis Buchman, a distinguished 22-year veteran of officiating high-stakes wrestling matches.
"He was screaming the whole time," Buchman said of Callahan's behavior during a bout pitting wrestlers from Bethlehem's two high schools. "At some point, you as an adult have to say: Is this acceptable behavior or not?"
That very question — what is acceptable — ties into an ongoing national debate about parental behavior at youth sporting events and an issue officials have grappled with for years. In this instance, it also pits the judgment of an ambitious politician and former high school wrestler against that of an experienced official from out of town who did not know the high-profile parent who was criticizing him.
Buchman said he can count on one hand how many fans he's ejected over two decades. He said Callahan's tone during continued shouts of "That's terrible, you're horrible, that call is terrible" was too much.
"I have very thick skin," said Buchman, who was named an Outstanding Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic AssociationReferee in 2009. "So obviously, it had to be bad enough for him to be removed."
Callahan, a candidate for Northampton County executive, gave a different version.
The father of a Freedom wrestler, Callahan arrived midway through the tournament, just in time for his son's match. During a bout after his son's, he yelled "that was an awful call" one time, which he said was a respectful way to voice his displeasure.
"[The referee] turned around, pointed at me and said, 'You gotta go,' " Callahan said. "I kind of looked at him incredulously and said, 'What?'"
The mayor left, but on his way out the door told Buchman he has "rabbit ears," implying the referee is overly sensitive to criticism from the stands. Callahan repeated the rabbit ears comment in a tweet Saturday night.
"Pretty sad when a wrestling fan can't express displeasure about a call," he tweeted. "Talk about rabbit ears."
Whether Callahan raised his fingers above his head to illustrate rabbit ears, as Buchman said, depends on who you ask. Callahan said he doesn't remember doing that and also never called Buchman a "terrible referee."
Bethlehem City Council President Eric Evans, a fellow Democrat and Freedom parent sitting in the same row, said he was surprised Callahan was ejected because the entire crowd was loud and the mayor wasn't swearing or leaving his seat. Evans, a former PIAA official himself, said he understands that officials are under a great deal of pressure and he respects the work they do, but he said this was an "unusual call."
Callahan maintains he didn't do anything he hasn't done at hundreds of wrestling matches, dating back to his days as a high school and college wrestler. The mayor still contests Buchman's decision not to call Liberty's wrestler for stalling. However, he said he respects Buchman's decision to toss him and he has great respect for the sport of wrestling.
"I got my coat, and I left the gym," Callahan said. "It was without incident, and I respect the referees."
One national expert on youth sports said Callahan's behavior was unacceptable, and given his status as mayor, sets a bad example that disrespecting officials is an appropriate way to behave.
"I applaud the ref that kicked the mayor out. He deserves a badge of honor," said John Mayer, a psychologist and vice president of the Center for Ethical Youth Coaching in Chicago. "I don't care who you are. You have to follow the rules and you have to behave appropriately as a parent."
PIAA wrestling official Bob Getz, a member of the Lehigh Valley Coalition on Sport Ethics, said referees are accustomed to some unfavorable comments from the stands, but it usually takes over-the-top behavior to eject a parent.
"I'd say more than 90 percent of the parents are sensible," said Getz, who attended the tournament at Liberty High School but did not witness Callahan's ejection. "But you are always going to have a few who are too intense."
Tensions rise at competitions like district finals, making conflicts between referees and fans more likely, Getz said.