Hey Ref!

Before I get started, I feel like I need to offer some Super Bowl thoughts.
1.  The Commercials: As a dad, I really enjoyed the Dove Men’s commercial; the Budweiser puppy/horse/wolves ad made my wife cry; I’d have loved to have been in the Nationwide board room when they decided that was the commercial to go with; the Coke spot confused my 9 year old; and the Pete Rose Sketchers ad was my favorite.  Seriously, he’s waited a long time; just let Pete in the HOF already.
2.  Halftime: I realized that I’m getting old because (1) I was indifferent to Katy Perry although three little boys in the house loved it; (2) Is Lenny Kravitz still relevant?  I was unaware of that if he is; and (3)  my wife was all about Missy Elliot’s appearance.  She found her 22 year old self in a hurry when Missy came out.
3.  The Game:  Regarding the fickleness of sports in general – if that last pass is completed, Pete Carroll is an aggressive genius, and Tom Brady is still regarded on the same rung as Elway, Kelly, etc.  Because that pass was intercepted, Carroll is an idiot, and Brady is arguably the best ever, finally eclipsing Joe Montana.

With that out of the way – We have a huge problem on our hands in youth sports.  We have an extreme shortage of officials.

I came across Crazy Hockey Dad a couple weeks ago.  Unfortunately, there are plenty more where that came from: Wrestling Mom (go to the 4:00 mark),   Football Dad, and more can be found with simple searches.  Or click here.  Or here for more on the same story..
It’s obviously not just parents, though; for examples of coaches yelling at officials, stop by almost any court/field/rink/diamond in the world.

Let’s get a couple specifics out of the way first:
1.  It’s difficult to officiate.  Officiating requires quick thinking, quick decision making, and the ability to move at the speed of the athletes being officiated…or at least as close as possible.
2.  The higher the level, the better that officials get paid. (In North Dakota at a Class A school, basketball referees make the following wages per game: $70/varsity, $40.50/JV&C, $33.50/9th grade, and $28.50/middle school.)
3.  The higher the level, the easier it can be to officiate the game: better player skill, more efficient movement, “cleaner” games, etc.
4.  The higher the level, the more difficult it can be to officiate the game: higher stakes, more pressure, quicker players, etc
5.  Officials start at the lower levels and work their way up to the higher levels – typically meaning that younger, less experienced officials are working the lower levels.

I can speak on this topic as an athletic director and as an official.  I’ve refereed basketball games in the past, and I’m still umping baseball games.  I’ve been fortunate enough to ump games from the Cal Ripken level up to NCAA D2, so I’ve seen plenty of different coaches, fans, and kids.

There are several realities within the athletic world that we’re facing because of our declining officials’ pool.
– Game pay for officials continues to climb.  Our high school officials get paid really well.  If I work a high school baseball double header, I’ll make $124 for about 3-4 hours of work (shorter or longer depending on the quality of play, of course).  The couple dollars a game increase every year doesn’t translate into much for the officials per game on a year to year basis, but take that $2/game and multiply by all of our home games in two high schools and four middle schools.  That’s a significant yearly increase for our game worker expenditures.
– We’ve had to reschedule games based on availability of officials.  In fact, we’re currently exploring moving some of our middle school games to Wednesday nights to avoid the high school nights of Tuesday/Thursday because we can’t find middle school officials.
– I’ve had afternoons where I’ve sprinted out of the office at the end of the work day to ump some games for other schools in order to free up enough umpires for games in our district.

So what’s causing the shortage?  I have a few ideas.
– Even though officials get paid well, it’s not enough money to justify listening to coaches and fans yell at their work for a couple hours.  Imagine if your job consisted of strangers (or not!) coming to your desk during the day and loudly criticizing you.  Not fun.
– Because of that, officials who have worked for a while decide they’re done putting up with the criticism, so they stop working.  Younger officials often take so much abuse at the lower levels that they find another way to make a couple bucks where people won’t yell at them for an hour.  Put that together, and tenured officials are getting out earlier while younger officials aren’t sticking around long enough to become good.
– Often, the criticism is meant to demean an official – as if the official is on a lower pedestal than the coach or the fan.  In all reality, the officials are as necessary – if not more so – as coaches for a well run game.
– Coaches who think they need to “work the officials” make the whole game miserable.  I’d like to see our coaches’ reactions if we had officials who tried to “work the coaches” for an entire game.

It’s a tough fix, but here are a handful of suggestions.

– You aren’t “working the officials”; you aren’t “advocating for your kids”; you aren’t “coaching for a call”.  You’re annoying.  That’s pretty much it.  Worse than that, when coaches are whining, the kids and fans typically follow that example.  I’ve posted about a great example of sideline demeanor in the past.   (I’ll even admit that there’s a coach in our area who I won’t ump for because his obnoxious behavior is patterned by his players and his fans.  There are enough other games for me to work so I’m able to actively avoid him.  I’ve suggested to my colleagues that they do the same.  The only way he’ll learn is for people to stop working for him.)
– Confession from an umpire – when you whine, I think it’s funny.  I’d like to think that I’m a decent umpire, so I’m comfortable with how I work a game.  Like anyone else in any other job, I’m not always on the top of my game; I make mistakes.  When coaches start picking on those mistakes, I think it’s funny.  As a knowledgeable baseball guy, I’d like to start questioning various player’s skill progression, some in-game play calling, etc. etc.
– More importantly, you should thank the officials.  If we ever get to the point where we no longer have officials, the only way to play games will be for coaches to officiate.  Have fun with that.

Check out these suggestions from a past post.  In particular, make sure to read #8.
– Confession from an umpire – when you yell, I laugh at you.  A lot.  In fact, many times when I’m meeting with my partner in between half innings, we’re sharing the dumb things we’ve heard shouted from the stands.
– More importantly, you should be thanking the officials.  You don’t have to officiate because other people are doing it for you.

Basic summary: officials are out there working because they enjoy the game, enjoy the kids, and/or enjoy the exercise.  I’ve umped for coaches I don’t particularly like, but I’ve never gone into a game planning on being biased.  And, honestly, if there is a parent or coach that an official actively picks on, it’s probably because the parent or coach was an idiot in the past.  Officials are serving their part of the game so the kids can perform their part.  Just leave the stripes alone!  In the meantime, look at what we’re paying officials to run around with the kids; now is as good a time as any to start getting involved!

18 Responses

  1. Ed James

    Thank you Mark. You thoughts are well thought out and as an official I agree with you and appreciate you putting a voice to your thoughts. I have reffed for 26 years now and one of my friends has a saying, “We keep getting older but the kids stay the same age…” I don’t know how much longer I will ref but I know I’m a lot closer to the end of my career than I am to the beginning. We need younger people to get invloved because without officials it’s just recess.

  2. Twinkie

    Lots of good points there. It seems as though this story has been told many times in the last 10 years or so, but really has not gotten any better. People keep getting busier and most would rather not go put up with what officials do in the free time that they do have. Yeah, the pay is ok especially in basketball but nothing that will get you rich. I’m a baseball umpire and I would bet that I have $1000 worth of gear. A legion baseball doubleheader take at least 4 hours (often much more), you’re there at least a half hour early and you clear a little over $100 after taxes. Not chump change but not real lucrative. We do it because it’s something to do and as you improve and become immune to the nimrods (as you said, mostly you end up just laughing at or making fun of them), it becomes fun as you develop confidence and camaraderie but many don’t have the personality to get to that point and give it up. And our summers are short, how many people want to give up days to go get treated like a pile of dog doo?
    One thing you sort of alluded to but not exactly – often the lower the level of the game, the harder it is to officiate. I would much rather work a college game or a postseason high school game than an 11 year old cal ripken tournament. The parents of those young kids are right on top of you at those complexes and most haven’t figured out how to be a sports parent yet and they yell and scream every thought that comes to their mind. As you said, this is often where officials start out and get a bad taste in their mouths.

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      Agreed, Nick. I didn’t want to dig too deeply into everything; I’m too wordy as it is. I completely agree that it’s difficult to work the lower levels, and that’s where our brand new officials have to start out. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to get college kids out to work middle school games for $30 when coaches and fans are all over them for an hour. Pretty tough to focus on improving at a job when you start focusing on simply being done for the day. I wish I knew the answer…in the meantime, we just try to keep educating people.

  3. Josh Nelson

    Very well written Mark. Finding officials is not only a problem in Grand Forks. Out here in our rural schools it is also tough. Almost all of our officials have to travel on top just doing the games. Most of the guys leave work early, some even use vacation time at their regular jobs to gain enough time to get out to us smaller rural schools. I hope the parents/athletes/coaches read this and realize just how important officials are to our youth sports. I know last year the hardest official for us to find was baseball umpires. It sounds like next year it is going to be football officials. What sport is next? Recruiting and getting young people involved in officiating is crucial. I look around and, no offense to any of our officials we use, there are not many young guys in their 20’s and 30’s doing games. Most are in their 40’s and 50’s and some even into their 60’s. So I hope when people read this blog they realize, whenever they have openly criticized an official, they are not accomplishing anything except for poor sportsmanship and probably steering away some young person within earshot from filling the future needs of officiating.

  4. Eric Ripley

    Thank you for your posting about officials. I have been a high school football official for the last 12 years and greatly enjoyed it. Not everyone has the ability to play football beyond high school, so being an official has allowed me to stay involved with the sport that I really enjoy. There is a camaraderie of working a game with your crew and spending time before, during, and after the games with each other.

    Most of the coaches and most of the fans are appreciative of the officials, but like always, it only takes a few to ruin the experience. Think about your favorite teacher you had in school (easy to do), think about your worst teacher you had in school (also easy to do). It is the same with coaches and the same with fans. I have a list of coaches and places to officiate that are outstanding and those coaches/fans that I know will be a challenge. Which one would you rather be associated with?

  5. SteveM

    My 15 year old son went through about a dozen hours of training and testing to become a Level II hockey referee this past fall. He reffed a couple mite games and a couple squirt games and enjoyed it. He then got a chippy PeeWee A game where a lot of penalties were called. One of the coaches was continually abusing him, even promising him that he’d make sure he’d never ref another game! Needless to say, he’s not real fired up about reffing another game. It’s no wonder that refs/umps/officials are becoming scarce. They get discouraged at a very young age by overzealous coaches/fans/parents. Your blog is right on. It’s truly amazing how important a PeeWee hockey game is isn’t it? Its a bunch of 11 and 12 year old kids for crying out loud! People need to lighten up!

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      I grimaced and nodded while reading your entire post. And if that coach had no problems addressing a 15 year old that way, how is he going to be with adults?

      I love your last statement. Kids playing games…we’re talking about kids playing games.

  6. Holly Hassler

    Thank you for the post. As a first year basketball official, I can relate to many of the examples you listed above. I chose to start officiating for multiple reasons. I enjoy the game and the kids and think it’s a good opportunity to stay involved in the community. I am also only one of a handful of females in our association and I take pride in that. The exercise is good too!

    One thing that I have learned in my short time of officiating, is that is isn’t an easy job. It takes a knowledge of the game, quick thinking, confidence, and most importantly a belief in yourself. The more games I officiate, the more that knowledge and confidence grows. Yes, there are coaches and parents who make the job more difficult but it has helped me develop a “thick skin” and I am grateful for that.

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      Keep plugging away! It sounds like you’re in it for all the right reasons; you’re the type of person that we need to stay in the game. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  7. 3GenTiger


    As Grand Forks AD, check out this white paper on Minnesota’s soccer referee shortage by Doug Marshak, Minnesota State Director of Referee Instruction.
    .http://tinyurl.com/kxrasr6 (PDF). Has quantitative data (age, experience, etc) outlining the referee crisis MN Youth Soccer currently faces. It outlines several solutions also.
    Some Key Drivers Referee Drivers:
    – The fast majority of soccer Referee’s are young and inexperienced increasing the occurrence of referee mistakes.
    – 2/3s all soccer refs are minors (17 yrs or YOUNGER).
    – The level of play has surpassed the ability of much of our referee population..
    – Relying heavily youth officials intensifies the shortage due to low availability
    (younger referees can’t drive and don’t want to work all day)
    “The crisis is not in referee numbers (though the effects of those numbers and the age distributions of our officials are most certainly being felt) but rather one of experience. Skill level, experience and competition intensity for soccer players in Minnesota is increasing, but skill level and experience of officials is decreasing.”

    The paper outlines solutions almost singularly focused on RETAINING current refs and putting in place mechanisms which help retention. (ex: ability for Refs to file incident reports online…which are investigated by school and associations)

    Another factor not addressed is the exponential growth in teams and tournaments. This should strike a cord with you, the increased demand (more teams/tournaments) from “specialization” has exacerbated the shortage; but, also has the most effective means to increase the certifications of more referees.

    For Grand Forks, which sports are most challenged in finding officials? Which sports are least challenged?

    How this white paper can assist you.

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      I will definitely check this out. We’re trying to address our shortages from two angles: recruitment and retention. Most of our current efforts are aimed towards recruitment in the hopes that more refs starting = more refs staying. This may give us some suggestions on the other end, too.

      We’re short in every sport since – as you alluded to – the popularity and availability of a sport both solve and create their own problems. For instance, our soccer and swimming officials’ pools are the smallest, but we’re the only school in the area that offers swimming and one of two that has soccer. Gymnastics officials are almost impossible to find right now. Almost every school in ND is paying huge chucks of mileage to get officials to work at meets. We have larger pools for volleyball, football, and basketball, but those are the sports that are offered by every school at every level…so the workforce is spread thin. I don’t think I could point to any single sport and say that we’re doing “ok” there now.

  8. bobby holley

    I found your writing style to be very thoughtful and creative. Well done. However, find it odd that the content did not direct any conversation at officials themselves. I agree that many parents in all sports have become overly engaged and in some cases out of control. But, what I (and I won’t go into my background, but my playing, coaching and refereeing expands 40 years at the highest levels) do see, more importantly, is a lack of integrity, professionalism, talent and interest in the game beyond the money from the officials. I’m speaking primarily of those officials at high school and below. I won’t go into the myriad of examples of how I came to this conclusion, but I will share one that exposes the typical official in today’s youth athletics world.

    I was doing the chains on the field during my son’s 9th grade football game this past fall. After the first couple quarters of interaction with the referee in charge of spotting the ball each time a player was tackled I started noticing that regardless of where the runner was tackled he would ALWAYS mark the ball on the yard mark NEVER where the runner was down. Whether the runner gained an extra half yard or not the ball was either spotted at the yard mark behind or in front of where the runner was actually tackled. So, I called him on it just before halftime. He acknowledged that was exactly what he was doing. From that point on he marked the ball at the correct spot.

    Why was it so hard to give the player, either the ball carrier or the tackler, credit for the proper yardage? It’s not a hard thing to do…because he immediately changed his ways and started spotting the ball more precisely. This referee and his fellow referees had gotten into the habit of not respecting young athletes nor the job they are tasked to perform. It’s just a 9th grade game afterall. Nobody really cares or watches that closely.

    If you take on a job understand what the job entails and do it well. The fans, the parents, the coaches will see it and give you respect.

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      The intent of the posts wasn’t to address the effectiveness of officials – just the shortage and treatment of them. Two thoughts came to mind while reading your reply, though. First, I don’t think that anybody would disagree that there are bad officials, but how does that differ from any other profession? There are bad doctors, bad teachers, bad bank tellers, bad business owners, etc. etc. etc. My second thought speaks directly to the intent of my post. What’s the accountability for poor officials? Their jobs are still safe because there are no replacement options. Even if we know that an official isn’t as good as he/she should be, we don’t have many options. We can’t avoid hiring the official because there aren’t other officials to hire, and when we lean on an official to put in time/effort to improve, we sometimes see those officials just walk away from working entirely. So what’s the better option: a poor official or no official at all? Recruitment and retention of officials is paramount to fixing the problem of poor officials. If our pool is bigger, then poor officials have to work at improving if they want to keep working.

  9. Hockey officiating is terrible at every level from mites to the NHL. I’m tired of excuses. The sport suffers because of incompetent officiating. Take the whistle out of your mouth and let the game be played, We are not there to see the referees, we are there to see the players and the game.

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