Abusive fans make it tougher to recruit high school sports refs

Irate high school sports fans, raised on instant replay and more willing than ever to aggressively second-guess calls against their teams, are heaping so much abuse on referees that it is becoming hard for North Carolina and other states to recruit new officials as the current group edges toward retirement.

The job has become so unattractive, national and state high school administrators say, that there are concerns about who will officiate events in the future and some state associations have discussed reducing the number of games high school teams play because of a lack of officials.

“I think the shortage of referees in high school is directly related to the level of verbal and even physical abuse that referees have experienced over the last 10 years,” said Shaun Tyrance, a sports psychologist based in Charlotte.

“Athletes feel a tremendous amount of pressure to perform so they can get a college scholarship. Athletes view referees as (a) potential barrier to fulfilling their dreams.”

Finding good officials has been difficult since ball first met bat and Mark Dreibelbis, an assistant commissioner of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association and supervisor of its officials, fears fan behavior is scaring potential officials away.

“We have fans who believe they can pay their $7 and get the right to be abusive and rude to officials, coaches and players,” Dreibelbis said. “Some fans think they can do or say anything.”

Barry Mano, the president of the National Association of Sports Officials, said spectators are accustomed to seeing calls on the professional and college level being reviewed on instant replay and the calls being changed.

“There is no replay in high school,” he said. “The fans assume close calls are always wrong.”

Some spectators, such as Robert Chamblee, who was supporting Clayton at a recent game, believe official’s calls are affected by fan behavior.

“The fans are starting to dictate how the refs call (the game). The fans are going to be rowdy, raucous but now you’re starting to see the refs be bothered or perturbed by the fans and that’s where the issues come in because they’re letting their emotions from the fans dictate how they referee the game.”

The abuse takes a toll, according to Brad Allen, who officiates in the NFL and still is involved in high school officiating.

“There is a change in fans. They are less forgiving of an official’s mistake,” he said. “There is a lack of respect. And in today’s world the abuse can be spread very quickly online.

“I think some young people are looking at that and wondering why they should get into officiating. Some of the veterans wonder why they continue to do it.”

Impending retirements

There are about 300,000 to 350,000 high school game officials in the United States, according to the National Association of Sports Officials. The NCHSAA uses about 7,000 officials, some of whom are certified in more than one sport.

National Federation of State High School Association’s director of sports and officials Theresa Wynns said many states have a shortage of officials in some sports.

North Carolina does not have a shortage, but Dreibelbis said the impending retirement of veterans could be a concern unless younger officials stay involved.

“They (officials) want to stay involved in the game and they want to give back to the sport,” Drebelbis said. “But if the atmosphere becomes too negative, the appeal diminishes. There isn’t a shortage of high school officials in North Carolina, especially not in the Triangle, but there is a concern that officiating in all sports is attracting fewer new people.”

“You notice it,” said Garner boys basketball coach Eddie Gray, whose club won the state 4A title in 2014. “Our officials the other night were all in their 60s. They did a good job, but you wonder who is going to take their place.”

The NCHSAA does not track the average age of game officials. In one state that does, a study by the Kansas State High School Activities Association found the average age of its softball umpires is 60.

Allen, the NFL official, said high school officials learn quickly that the kids are always in their teens.

“You are getting a year older and the teams are still filled with 15, 16 year olds,” he said. “You’ve got have young people come into officiating every year. We’ve got to attract them.”

But recruiting new officials is getting harder.

“Nationally, we have to find a way to attract younger men and women into officiating,” Mano said. “You give someone a very difficult job, expect perfection, pay them very little and then heap verbal abuse on top. That’s not very appealing.”

An emotional game

Dreibelbis says officials always have been targets for verbal abuse. But he is greatly concerned with what seems to be a growing amount of physical violence and threats of violence against officials.

“The negative atmosphere in the public sector is getting much worse,” Dreibelbis said. “Last season we saw the safety of officials in jeopardy, too.”

Two high school football players in Texas deliberately collided with an official in a September game after an assistant coach directed them to do so. The incident generated more than 12 million views on the internet.

“Physical violence is a growing problem,” Mano said. “Essentially every week our office receives a report about a game official being physically assaulted at a game by a coach, player or spectator.”

Within the last two years, recreation league soccer officials in Utah and Michigan have died after being punched by players.

Bob Gardner, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said heckling fans are bad enough, but he was alarmed last year when there were several incidents, including the ones in Texas, of officials being assaulted by players or coaches. Such action, Gardner writes in High School Today magazine, undermines high school athletics.

“Whether the abuse is verbal or physical, unsportsmanlike behavior aimed at officials must end if we expect men and women to continue filling this important service,” Gardner writes.

Keeping officials safe has not been a major issue in North Carolina, but the NCHSAA is being proactive in stressing schools’ responsibilities to officials.

Dreibelbis said it is important for coaches to realize that they are role models for their players and other students at school.

“High school athletics is about teaching values,” he said. “The way that coaches relate to officials teach young people how they should interact with authority. Coaches and parents, need to keep that in mind.”

The National Federation of State High School Associations is making an effort to educate coaches, parents and officials that they are allies, not enemies.

“In high school athletics, competition is for the children,” said Winns. “The coaches want to help the kids and the officials want to help the kids. Neither is against the children. The coaches and the officials have the same goal. They are on the same side.”

Calming things down

Jim Peyton, the NCHSAA regional supervisor of basketball officials in the Triangle area, said he has never felt threatened during his 30 years as an official.

“I think the coaches and athletic directors in our area do a good job creating a safe environment,” he said. “We talk to our athletics directors and coaches about that.

“The students like to stand up and jump up and down, which is great, but if things are getting too intense an administrator usually can speak to them and calm it down.”

Jamin Herrin, who officiates area high school basketball and baseball games and wants to call college games some day, doesn’t think belligerent fans have an impact on how he officiates a game.

Herrin, 26, started umpiring rec games at night when he was 15 and playing baseball at Brantley County (Ga.) High in the afternoons. He said he doesn’t really care about what the fans think of the job he does officiating.

“As long as they don’t attack me, they can yell all they want,” he said. “I think it is funny at times. They are sitting 12 rows up on the other side of the gym and they believe they can see a play better than I can when I’m standing five feet away.”

Hard to control the fans

Cleveland High senior guard Landry Moore said it is hard at times to be remain calm even though he believes the officials do a great job. When the game is tight and emotions are running high, players’ feelings can sometimes spill out.

“One side is going to be happy about the call and the other side is not,” he said.

Clayton high senior Zack Greene said that even if the players and coaches control their emotions, the officials still will hear from spectators.

“You can’t control who walks through the door and what they are going to say,” he said.

The NCHSAA’s Dreibelbis said schools can do a great deal to control the environment in the gym. Fans are sometimes cued by coaches’ behavior. And Dreibelbis also believes the constant criticism of officials on the professional and collegiate levels is a factor in high school fans’ lack of respect for high school officials.

That lack of respect is hurting the game, he said.

Don Fish, the N.C. Hall of Fame executive director, said he remembers the days of calling games at the YMCA and long road trips to small high schools as he worked his way through the various levels of officiating.

“I loved it,” he said. “I loved being a part of the game. But I am concerned with what I’m seeing today. There is just so little respect. Something has to be done.”

Earning their stripes

Earning the right to officiate a high school game in any sport takes time. A potential basketball official, for example, registers with the NCHSAA, contacts a regional supervisor, and is required to attend a rules clinic and take a test.

Once an official reaches the varsity level they still have to pass the rules test each year and are evaluated each season.

Officiating NCHSAA games is no financial bonanza. Depending on the sport, a high school official makes between $51 (volleyball and swimming) and $76 (football) for a competition. For a basketball doubleheader, an official makes $91.

Officials cover their own expenses.

“High school officials aren’t in it for the money,” Dreibelbis said. “Officiating needs to be fun. If you don’t enjoy calling the games and being, whether you like it or not, in the center of the action, officiating on the high school level probably isn’t for you.”

Larry Lindsey played on a boys high school state championship basketball team and later coached eight teams to state titles at Wake Forest and Youngsville. He knew that sometimes officials’ calls sometimes help you and sometimes hurt you.

“If you have to get a call at the end of a game to win, you’ve got to be lucky,” he said. “And you don’t get lucky often.”

Lindsey was a fiery competitor who would throw his jacket, loosen his tie and sweat through his shirt, but he appreciated the role of officials. He also believed that one call never won or lost a game.

But officials are a vital part of the game. As Lindsey, the state championship coach, once phrased it, even the worst official is better than having the players call their own fouls.

Tim Stevens: 919-812-5711