Rob Brown couldn’t believe his ears as he stood behind home plate.
Brown, the chief umpire for Little League for the majority of the Treasure Valley, had just called a third strike on a young batter. The boy turned to Brown and gave his two cents.
“What, are we golfing here?”
A lesser man might have been angry. Brown took the high road and smiled.
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“This kid is 11 years old,” Brown said.
The days of silence and compliance are over. Talking back is back.
And officials have had enough.
And it’s a problem in Idaho, too.
“The pool has dried up,” said Scott Orr, the District Three commissioner for Idaho high school football. “I do believe that it’s affected all the sports, not only national but locally. It is an issue.”
Why the hemorrhage in numbers?
Part of it is pay. Orr said his referees make $60 a game at most for 5-8 hours of work. The larger cause, though, has to do with what Brown experienced behind home plate.
Overzealous parents at high school sporting events are not a new phenomenon, but it’s become more frequent at the middle school level and lower, referees say. A few bad experiences like Brown had make it hard to sell someone on officiating a high school game, much less continuing at the youth level.
Brown said it’s easy to think, “Why am I here? Why am I doing this?”
Oschan Schmidt, a 20-year-old student at Northwest Nazarene University and a volleyball referee, remembers almost quitting before she ever officiated a match.
“I was extremely nervous. ... It’s a lot of pressure to be up on that stand,” Schmidt said.
The issue is not with losing veteran officials, said David Lee, the District Three basketball commissioner. Those who make it past the three-year mark are more likely to keep going, according to the NFHS. The problem is getting new, younger referees to stay the course.
Only 10 of the 30 new referees Lee hired made it through last season, he said.
Gail Garwick, the District Three volleyball commissioner, said she will generally start a season with 90 officials, many recruited from local colleges. She finished last year with about 65.
Brown said the Little League district all-stars normally starts with almost 60 umpires. At the end of last season that number was 26.
“This year, I’ll probably have 18 or 19,” Brown said.
Attrition, combined with new high schools and more middle school sports, means that there are too many games and too few officials.
Lee estimates he assigned 3,000 basketball games last season.
“We’ve had a lot of charter schools that are starting to add sports programs, middle schools. ... It’s requiring a lot more officials, and we just have not seen a huge increase,” Lee said. “We start with a good number of good officials, but the percentage drops.”
With less-polished officials to lean on, commissioners are forced to use ones with little to no experience for some of the most important games. The results aren’t always preferable.
Though Garwick estimates she has had to reschedule only two high school games in 10 years because of a lack of officials, she’s been forced to leave middle school games without referees. Important high school matches are sometimes assigned to ill-prepared referees.
“You only have so many that are actually experienced enough to take the tough matches … but you can’t get those schools the same one all the time,” Garwick said. “I had no choice.”
Garwick thinks that spectators have become emboldened over the years.
“Parents are getting worse,” Garwick said. “They are more mouthy, and they don’t care if they try to come down and get in (an official’s) face.”
Chad Acker, a 38-year-old football official entering his second season as a referee, said he had had positive experiences overall in his first season. But he recalls a few instances in which fans got a little too rowdy.
The advice he received in referee training was to turn a deaf ear.
“(There were) a lot of references to needing glasses,” Acker said.
Pressure to get a son or daughter an athletic scholarship or using sports as a way to gauge the job they are doing increases stress on parents and they act out, experts say.
“Sports has become an investment to many parents, one that they believe could lead to a college scholarship, even though the odds are bleak,” Michael S. Rosenwald wrote in The Washington Post.
Rosenwald argues that parents ruin sports for young athletes, causing them to lose interest. Those abusive spectators hurt officials, too.
While the ribbing is evident at the high school level, it might be worse at lower levels.
Schmidt, the NNU student, has officiated middle school, freshman, junior varsity and varsity volleyball for two seasons. The lower the level, Schmidt said, the worse the spectators and coaches can be toward officials.
“Usually it’s the people who don’t understand how volleyball works (who) are the ones that question you,” Schmidt said. “It’s easier to be an official for higher levels.”
Experiences like Schmidt’s or Brown’s behind the plate are especially harmful. If things are that bad in a regular game, how bad will it get in a state championship game?
“(Referees) have to start somewhere, right? They start with little to no experience,” Brown said. “You get the intense parents that take the game so seriously, even at those younger divisions.
“By the time they are screamed at and yelled at, it’s not fun. It takes too long to get to the point where it doesn’t bother them.”
Commissioners in District Three have considered job fairs. They’re already advertising refereeing opportunities to outgoing high school seniors and college students. The biggest selling point? A little extra cash in the pocket.
“We are selling it that way,” Lee said. “We’re letting them know it’s a good avocation for college.”
Money is one reason why Schmidt plans to return for a third season. On days she officiates high school volleyball, she will cover freshman, junior varsity and varsity matches. It’s $115 for five hours of work.
“It is a very nice job to have as a college student,” she said.
Once referees get their feet in the door, the big job is keeping them there. Sometimes the only way to do that is by making promises that it’s worth it.
“I love the idea of staying active. There’s a lot of rewards to it,” said Lee, 58. “Everybody has gone through it; we’ve all had those moments. (It takes) time and maturity. But time and maturity prevails.”
Where it all starts, though, is to ensure referees in youth sports have better experiences. If they enjoy their time there, they are far more likely to advance.
That’s easier said than done.
“We’re not a baseball and softball program. We’re a life program,” Brown said. “They have to quit taking this game so seriously.”
Not all referees are itching to leave. Despite a few incidents, Acker said he has no plans to stop officiating football.
“(I love) the excitement of when you see teams competing,” Acker said. “Being able to facilitate that in a fun and safe way is exciting.”