I was covering a high school basketball game earlier this season when I heard a fan sitting behind me voice his displeasure about a call that had just been made.
“Hey, ref!” the man yelled. “You’re missing a great game!”
Happy with his one-liner, the man turned to someone he was sitting with and said with obvious satisfaction, “He heard me! I know he heard me!”
Yes, that referee heard the heckler. A lot of referees are hearing it these days. And that explains why a crisis is developing that gets lost amidst all other issues of contemporary sports, such as concussions, performance-enhancing drugs and recruiting violations.
The reality is the pool of officials in all sports is getting smaller and smaller because of the grief they are consistently being subjected to while working an assignment.
And the time is coming when an event you have been looking forward to is cancelled or postponed not because of inclement weather, but because there weren’t enough officials available that night.
The National Association of Sports Officials reports that the harassment of sports officials has become such an issue that 70 percent of referees in all sports quit the job within three years. The president of the association, incidentally, is Barry Mano, a St. Catherine’s graduate who is publisher of Racine-based Referee Magazine, which he founded in 1976.
NASO has done extensive research on this trend and the outlook is disturbing.
“We are in a nationwide officiating crisis,” said Bill Topp, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Editor of Referee Magazine who is a member of NASO. “There are more games being played than ever before, with fewer officials than ever before. The math doesn’t work.”
Topp easily explains why things are adding up as they do these days.
“In every survey we’ve ever done at NASO, the No. 1 problem is sportsmanship,” he said. “But it’s generally not the players. It’s the parents and the coaches. The lack of civility in society spills into our sporting events.”
That is reflected in some of the surveys conducted By NASO. In one, 47.94 percent of officials who responded feared for their safety because of an administrator, coach, player or spectator behavior.
In other survey, those cites as causing the most problems were parents (39.54 percent), coaches (29.57), fans (18.25) and players (10.11).
Let’s face it. Officials have historically been deemed the “enemy” at sporting events.
Fans have the preconceived notion that a crew of officials gather for some clandestine meeting before a game and decide they are going to favor one team over the other with their calls.
Coaches try to inspire their players with an us-against-them mentality, convincing them that they must not only rise above the opponent, but the clueless officials who will be working the game. And then they proceed to ride those officials mercilessly from almost when the competition starts.
And then there are the parents who are so outraged by what they deem as inept calls that they berate and even physically abuse the officials. The sickening videos are for all to see on YouTube.
Would you want to put yourself through such abuse? It’s not as if officials are getting paid exorbitant fees to work a game. What’s more, they sometimes travel long distances to an assignment, yet receive no compensation for their time and traveling expenses.
And, yet, they are expected to be nothing less than perfect every time they work.
How many of us are perfect in our jobs?
Tom Aldrich of Catholic Central, who is the only Racine County high school football coach who doubles as an athletic director, has become acutely aware of this issue. He had a lot to say about it when I addressed it with him at the start of football practice last August.
“We have conference commissioners who help assign officials at the varsity level and sometimes they might do it at the JV,” Aldrich said. “But it’s really difficult at the JV level to find officials because the demand is at the varsity level and they’re pulling officials up for that level, which leaves a void for the JV level.
“It’s hard to find someone to take that pay cut and do it just for the good of the game and the good of those kids. Thankfully, there’s still enough of them around, but it’s getting harder and harder to find those people who are willing to do it at the JV level.
“There’s just not as many officials. If you break down what they make and the time they put into it to get there and everything else and, in some situations, the guff they have to put up with, you can’t blame them for not doing it.
“We need to see an improvement in the sportsmanship of coaches, fans and players. And we need to get more officials. But it’s a tough sell right now.”
Topp has a unique perspective. Not only has he worked as an official, he has been a spectator for the sporting events involving his four children.
He obviously vouches for the officiating profession. And he passes along a warning that things must change or this situation will only grow worse.
“Officiating is a wonderful avocation that teaches life skills — communication, decision-making and dealing with pressure,” he said. “We just need to support a healthy athletic atmosphere for all involved, especially at the lower levels.
“Your kid is not getting a scholarship offer while playing in a youth game. And the officials are going to make mistakes. They are not making mistakes on purpose. Get over it. And enjoy watching your kid play. It doesn’t last forever.”
The final word comes from Aldrich, who has managed to take his teams to four state championship games in the last 15 years while maintaining a policy of being professional and courteous with the officials who work his games.
His message? Put yourself in the shoes of the officials the next time you choose to make their lives miserable.
“Obviously, everyone has a different angle on every play and everything that’s going on and they’re going to see things differently, but to actually doubt what those guys or gals see out there when they’re making a call and blow up over it, it’s ridiculous,” Aldrich said. “You can’t tell me those coaches have never make mistakes, like calling the wrong play, calling a timeout at the wrong time or whatever.
“I think we’re in a society right now that just wants to point the finger too much instead of accepting responsibility and taking care what they’re responsible for. Everyone’s trying to overstep their bounds. And sometimes as coaches and parents, everyone thinks they see it better or know it better. But what training have they gone through to be able to do that?”
The bottom line is ominous.
“I’m grateful for the officials we have, but we need to get more because it could have a dramatic effect on the number of games that are going to be able to be played down the road,” Aldrich said.