The ranks of those willing to officiate youth sports have been shrinking over the past several years both nationally and in Ohio in sports ranging from basketball and football to baseball and softball and on to soccer.
As entrenched officials continue to age and find it more difficult, especially in basketball and soccer, to keep up with sports played by those in prime physical condition, the needs are becoming more and more immediate in enticing young men and women to take up refereeing as an avocation.
It’s a problem that’s certainly not lost on some of the area’s veteran officials who offer a wide range of opinions on what they’ve seen over their combined 201 years of time making the tough calls on courts, fields and diamonds.
For the dean of officials in the Lima area, Denny Morris, who’s officiated basketball for 44 years and football for 43, there are several possible reasons for the declining numbers of those willing to make the tough calls.
“Really, a number of factors play into the declining numbers of men and women willing to officiate. Of course, there’s the lack-of-respect issue and potential for fan abuse, but money also plays into this with the amount of out-of-pocket expense often incurred by an official.
“Game fees for officials are often quite low, especially when you factor in the time commitment and travel to get to the games, rules meetings and summer camps and such as well as the gear officials often need to purchase.”
As far as out-of-pocket expenses, Morris went on to explain one that the average fan may find surprising.
“There are summer team basketball camps at nearby colleges where officials aren’t even paid. There, veteran officials will often serve as clinicians as they watch less- experienced officials work games and then meet with them to review performance. In some cases, these camps serve as tryouts, or auditions, for league assignors as well. These experiences for younger officials, while valuable, come with a double whammy, a weekend away from the family and also some pretty significant out-of-pocket travel expenses.”
Morris also cites the current strong economy as a possible deterrent to getting commitments from those who could fill the ranks.
“With record low unemployment, ‘Help wanted’ signs are everywhere, so people aren’t looking so much for secondary-income opportunities. The old sales pitch that used to be used to recruit young officials, ‘You do it for the love of the game, not the money,’ just doesn’t fly anymore.”
As far as negative crowd behavior that may have made his four-plus decades officiating unpleasant, Morris says he’s been lucky, but that’s not to say there haven’t been some unnerving moments.
“I’ve been officiating Big Ten football since 2002, and on that level, fans are quite passionate, especially after home big upset wins when thousands charge the field. The two I recall pretty clearly were both in Kinnick Stadium in Iowa when the Hawkeyes upset Ohio State in 2017 and when Iowa beat a third-ranked Penn State on a last-second field goal in 2008. While the fans aren’t angry, those situations can still be scary.”
As far as giving young developing officials a more positive experience to increase the likelihood they’ll stay with it and renew their certificates to officiate basketball, Morris has a suggestion he’s been trying to convince the state powers that be to adopt.
“I’ve been promoting for the past couple of years and will continue to do so that the coach’s box in junior high be eliminated to keep young coaches more tethered to the bench except during timeouts. There is no reason for these young coaches roaming the sideline screaming at novice officials. It incites the crowd and certainly hurts both with retention and recruitment of young officials.”
When it comes to controlling crowd behavior, Fort Recovery Schools actually adopted a spectator code of conduct during the 2016-17 school year. The board-adopted policy is one that comes with significant consequences for poor spectator behavior that includes suspensions and even possible lifetime bans for repeat offenders from all Fort Recovery athletic events as well as meetings with school officials to discuss school expectations when it comes to spectator deportment before they’re allowed to reurn.
Fort Recovery superintendent Justin Firks has plenty of experience assessing crowd behavior at high school athletic events, first, as a basketball and baseball player at Coldwater High School in the mid-to-late 1990s, then as a collegiate baseball player at Ashland University, then as head baseball coach at New Bremen and Napoleon and then as an OHSAA basketball official in a distinguished 14-year career that included his selection to work two state final games and one semifinal game. Additionally, Firks umpired baseball for two years.
Recalls Firks, “While I don’t remember any fans being removed during my playing days, as an official and now an administrator, I’ve seen it several times over the last couple decades.
“Players are bigger and faster, and there’s an increased physicality to the game, and the more contact, the more fans react to. That’s why I think more than ever, game-management by referees in basketball from the opening tip is vital.”
Regarding the adoption of the school’s code of fan conduct, Firks said that the incidents with fans that cross the line have decreased dramatically, with only two incidents occurring since the policy was adopted.
Firks, like Morris, believes that the decline in officiating numbers is multi-factorial but also feels the potential for fan abuse and overall lack of respect for officials can’t be understated.
“Given the time commitment and relatively low pay, many officials have grown increasingly frustrated with the behavior of fans at games, feeling renewing their certificate just isn’t worth it.”
Veteran official Jon Derryberry, who has officiated high-school football for 39 years and basketball for 37 in addition to 21 years logged as a softball umpire, has seen his share of fan behavior that crossed the line.
“I’d have to say that fans are getting worse for the most part. Over the years, I’ve had some memorably unpleasant incidents. I was punched in the back of the head by a fan that came down out of the stands in one game and, in another incident, another official and I were chased down Route 30 by another carload of fans, who, I’m sure, had bad intentions.”
As far as getting more young officials into the ranks, Derryberry has some thoughts.
“If we could get veteran officials to work with junior high, freshman and JV games to help mentor young officials, it would help. But, in basketball, there are so many varsity games during the week that would be difficult. Additionally, there are those prima donna older officials who wouldn’t dream of doing that. Now, if we officials could be given access to players, say, after practice, to talk to them about the benefits of one day officiating, I think that may help. Also, if we could get more coaches encouraging players to consider officiating once their playing days are over, I think that would also be a benefit.”
Roger Scott has been a soccer referee for the past 16 years and feels when it comes to deportment in the crowd and, at times even with some coaches, there’s a lot of work to be done.
“I’ve had to eject a fan on more than one occasion, and, in one incident, I even had to eject a coach who came out onto the field, picked up the ball and punted it into the woods.”
Additionally, Scott admits to having been followed to his car after games on more than one occasion by angry fans.
The engaging Scott has found some occasional humor in what he hears shouted from off the field. He remembers one fan yelling, “Hey, ref, if you had one more eye, you’d be a Cyclops!” And, Scott is ready the next time he hears the cliché criticism yelled, “Hey, ref, you’re missing a great game,” to which his response will be, “I know, but they made me do this one.”
Particularly funny to Scott is when he hears someone yell out that he’s a homer. Says Scott sarcastically, “Yea, right. Here I am a hundred miles from Lima officiating a game between two schools I’ve never heard of, and I’m a homer.”
While Scott does acknowledge that referee abuse is a serious problem, measures implemented to stop it are largely ineffective. “Really, over my sixteen years, I think parents are getting worse. It seems so many think their kids are going to get a full ride to play college soccer or they’re going to be selected to the US National Team and, somehow, it’s that less-than-perfect officiating that’s going to stop those things from happening.”
And, Scott has little doubt that referee abuse plays a significant role in officiating shortages in his sport.
“We just cannot retain enough young referees to keep up with the increased demand caused by the retirements of the baby-boomer officials. So many of our young officials don’t renew their certificates after a couple of years. They’re telling us that the money just isn’t worth the abuse and lack of respect, and many older officials are beginning to feel the same way.”
As for the potential for recruiting the players of today to one day officiate, Scott remains skeptical.
“Players witness firsthand the abuse officials receive. Why would they want to be on the receiving end of that? When we hopefully some day finally reach a point where we have a generation of players that witness respect rather than disdain for referees, things may change but not until then.”
Certainly, few would argue that youth sports don’t teach valuable lessons, lessons that can’t be learned within the four walls of a traditional classroom, but for these lessons to be learned, there must be those willing to enforce the rules of each contest. And, that’s a problem of sufficient magnitude that should be concerning to all who’re truly invested in young student-athletes.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and author of two books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.