Referees struggle with respect amid growing hostility
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Jimmy Woods has been a youth official for nearly 30 years, and he's lost count of how many football games he has refereed and how many times he's been yelled at, threatened or insulted.
Oh, he remembers the details. He has been surrounded by angry parents following games, told he "has no integrity" by coaches and cursed at as recently as this season by players and fans at a private high school in Little Rock.
"People don't respect the emblem anymore," said Woods, a 50-year-old firefighter who officiates games on the side. "They think you're out to get them or cheat them."
Violence against referees is as old as sport itself, and most are familiar with awful stories from lower-division soccer matches in Europe or South America. But the headlines have appeared uncomfortably closer to home for Woods and his fellow officials lately.
In a two-year span, referees in Utah and Michigan died after they were punched by angry players during games. In September, two San Antonio football players blindsided a referee on purpose, an incident that drew widespread condemnation.
This has come at a cost: By all accounts from those involved, finding and retaining referees is becoming more and more difficult. In fact, recognizing the potential shortage, many desperate state high school associations have taken lead roles in recruiting new talent to an aging workforce facing startlingly hostile conditions.
One of those states is Kansas, where the number of registered officials has dropped since the 2012-13 school year. The state had 2,027 basketball officials that year, compared to 1,887 this year, and the number of football referees has shrunk from 1,372 to 1,309 over the same span. The average age of the state's softball umpires by one measurement was found to be over 60.
The effects of a referee shortage are many - games are delayed or moved or canceled altogether, and referee crews in sports such as soccer and basketball are trimmed from three to two, said Gary Musselman, executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association, whose group, like many others, is in the midst of the prep football playoffs.
"I don't want to sound disparaging of younger generations, but I think sometimes younger people aren't as inclined to be as fixed in as some older people," Musselman said. "Maybe they are more established and aren't as caught up in, 'Does everybody like me?' Because officials are going to do things that people aren't going to like, and not everybody can handle that negative feedback."
Two years ago, the association started making training opportunities more accessible for potential referees and offering a $1,000 grant, the first of which was awarded to the Greater Wichita Officials Association to help create a library of video clips for training. Coaches were asked to identify possible future referees among their players, too. The efforts resulted in 22 recent high school graduates registering as officials.
The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association offers to waive its first- or second-year registration fees for current and former members of the U.S. military. One marketing brochure reads: "From Serving Our Country ... To Helping Our Schools."
Barry Mano founded the National Association of Sports Officials in 1980 and spent 23 years as a college basketball referee. The group in Racine, Wisconsin, doesn't keep national data to track the decline, but its 2002 survey found that 90 percent of high school officials believed they had a referee shortage - and Mano doubts those concerns have gone away in the face of growing animosity and poor behavior by fans and coaches.
"Unsporting behavior continues to be the main reason that people get out of officiating," said Mano, who noted that pay for his members ranges from roughly $50-$60 per game at the high school level to approximately $2,500-$3,000 for major college football games. "They worry about their safety, they worry about putting up with all that guff for $50 a game. Are you kidding me? That's why there are shortages of men and women who want to go out and officiate in a lot of parts of this country."
A call to NASO leads to a menu with multiple choices. The third option is the association's Assault Protection Program for its 22,000-plus members.
"It is kind of a sad commentary," said Mano, whose organization backed legislation in more than 20 states to beef up punishments for people who attack a referee. NASO also provides insurance that can help officials who are the victim of an assault by a spectator or athlete, as well as money for attorney fees.
Don Boss, 64, has officiated a variety of sports over his 47 years in the business, and he's overseen high school and adult soccer leagues in Arkansas for more than 20 years. He assigns officials in the central part of the state and tries to weed out officials who might not be able to walk away from a heated situation.
"The problem isn't finding refs," Boss said. "The problem is finding good refs."
Boss has seen his share of incidents over the years - baseball bats being wielded as weapons, guns being shown, police standing by, referees being assaulted. Boss has a simple rule he takes with him onto the field, intended to keep everyone calm: "Everyone goes to work on Monday."
Like many of his colleagues, Woods started as a football referee, in Texas in 1987, to remain connected to the game he once played. It's a little money on the side, a chance to be active and around the game he loves.
Nearly 30 years later, in an officiating career that's seen him work in high school and college in conferences such as the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Conference USA, the former minor league baseball player continues to referee despite taking medical leave from his firefighting job in recent years as he battles leukemia. He plans to keep going.
"It's a great service to the kids," Woods said. "Without these guys working at all levels of football, from pee wee to junior high to high school to college to different pro and semi-pro events, these kids wouldn't be able to play."