Respect for Officials
By Doug Abrams
Late last month, The Oklahoman carried a thoughtful op-ed article by Mike Whaley, the Director of Officials for the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association. The OSSAA is the membership organization that supervises and regulates the state’s interscholastic sports programs.
With the fall season approaching, Whaley reminded coaches, parents, and players to respect the referees and umpires who help assure the smooth operation of high school and middle school games. “As much as your team wants to win,” he wrote, “officials want to get the calls right. Make no mistake, officials miss calls, . . . but the vast majority of them I know approach every contest in an effort to work the ‘perfect game’”.
“In the world of secondary sports,” Whaley concluded, “athletics is education-based — the core value to the student-athlete is in the process not the outcome.”
Essential Cogs In the Machinery
Mike Whaley is right to urge respect for referees and umpires. Officials do sometimes miss calls because they, like the parents and coaches and players, are not professionals in the sport. Everyone makes mistakes. But for every missed call, officials make dozens of correct calls that only appear wrong to parents and coaches who do not understand the rules, do not see the action as closely as they think they do, or cannot overcome partisanship.
Responsibility brings accountability, so officials should expect periodic reviews by league authorities. But perfection cannot be the standard or the expectation. Leagues will be entitled to perfect referees when the players become perfect players, the coaches become perfect coaches, and the parents become perfect parents. Until that day of universal perfection dawns, fallible officials are a part of youth league and interscholastic sports.
As a youth hockey coach, I learned early that officials deserve respect because, like parents and coaches, they are essential cogs in the complex machinery that enables the young athletes to play. But I also sense that in many communities, persistent disrespect can jeopardize player safety by inducing many experienced referees and umpires to retire prematurely, worn down by the verbal and sometimes physical abuse they face during games.
The rest of this column discusses the sometimes hidden link between officials’ premature retirements and heightened risks to player safety, especially in contact and collision sports.
Earlier this year, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer published an article by Tim Stevens, “Abusive Fans Make It Tougher to Recruit High School Sports Refs.” The article led with this troublesome forecast: “Irate high school sports fans . . . are heaping so much abuse on referees that it is becoming hard for North Carolina and other states to recruit new officials. . . .”
The media regularly reports about chronic referee shortages, not only in school sports, but also in many youth leagues from coast to coast. Among the officials I have known, most stepped forward not primarily for the relatively modest stipends they receive, but to remain active in the game while serving youth and their families. Most officials are family men and women with personal obligations and reputations. Most can find other constructive ways to participate in community life, free from persistent abuse dished out by other adults, often within sight and earshot of the officials’ own families.
Why the link between chronic referee shortages and player safety? “To be effective for promoting safety,” says a recent medical study, a youth sport’s rules “must be enforced rigorously and consistently by referees and leagues.” Parents and coaches assume important enforcement roles, but referees are the primary enforcers once the game starts. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports consensus among sports medicine professionals that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of the game . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”
This essential control suffers when so many veteran officials quit each year. Many replacement officials are simply not yet ready for the responsibilities cast on them. But for the premature departures of so many veterans, many of the replacements would not yet be on the field.
Because of the competitors’ size and speed, loss of game control seems particularly troublesome in contact and collision sports in high schools and middle schools, the levels that the OSSAA and other state activities associations supervise. Most parents and coaches do not cross the line into verbal or physical abuse of officials, and most adults may deplore such abuse. But the majority’s disgust does not diminish the harmful influence of the errant minority who do cross. Leagues often get the quality of officiating that they deserve, and player safety may depend on the outcome.
Sources: Mike Whaley, OSSAA Official: Treat the Refs, Umps Right During This High School Sports Year, The Oklahoman, Aug. 24, 2016; Tim Stevens, Abusive Fans Make It Tougher to Recruit High School Sports Refs, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Mar. 27, 2016; Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, vol. 19, p. 451 (2009); Chris G. Kouteres & Andrew J.M. Gregory, Injuries in Youth Soccer, Pediatrics, vol. 125, p. 410 (Feb. 2010).