Could you imagine getting verbally abused and physically threatened at your part-time job, and then coming back to work again the next day? That’s the life of high school sports officials.
Anyone who has spent time around youth sports has seen coaches, parents and players scream and curse at a referee or umpire during a heated game. Those unpleasant interactions have worn down officials, and are part of the reason they’re being chased away, with a drop in availability posing a potential crisis for SoCal high school sports. Last year towards the end of baseball season, Wilson coach Andy Hall said his school was scrambling to find enough umpires to staff all the local high school games.
“We are struggling with officials numbers and that’s section wide,” CIF Southern Section Commissioner Rob Wigod said. “You want to keep the officiating world constant, but it’s a multi-faceted issue.”
Those facets include the intimidating environment at games, the pay scale, the accountability on social media, the easier-to-obtain and higher paying youth sports jobs, the retirement of the veteran officials and the lack of new applicants.
Tom Davies, the CIF-SS officials liaison for Long Beach and Whittier, estimates that he’s lost 10 percent of his referees and umpires every year for the last five years.
The problem is nationwide. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, an average of two out of every 10 referees continue officiating into their third year.
“It’s a major problem for all of the sports,” Davies said. “When the number of officials drops, the aptitude drops. We’re putting first-year officials on the field who just don’t have any experience because we don’t have enough for the varsity games.”
Lance Hare has been umpiring local high school baseball for almost 25 years, and he assigned baseball officials in CIF-SS in the Long Beach and Whittier area for six years until last season.
“I stepped down from assigning because it’s become too difficult to find quality officials to cover all of the games,” Hare said. “Our numbers our down at least 30 percent from when I took over six years ago. When I started we had about 100 guys, last year we had 65 working officials.”
Hare said he tried to survive the shortage by working with the schools to move games, and relying on good umpires to call multiple games a day.
“I think we’re missing a generation that really wants to go out and do this,” Hare said. “I used to get some high school kids to work youth games. They would work two hours and make $50, but the environment and sportsmanship from parents drove them away. I had four or five guys do one game and not come back, my son included.”
“I’ve heard the stories of people getting physically threatened and followed out to the parking lot,” he said. “It’s not worth it for a couple bucks.”
Wigod and the CIF-SS are trying to address the problem by encouraging schools and officials’ associations to recruit new applicants.
“We suggest to our schools that they identify one student-athlete who isn’t going to go on to play in college, but still enjoys athletics, to have them get involved in officiating,” Wigod said. “If we had every school forward one student-athlete that would be a huge step towards alleviating the shortage.”
The many and varied sport-specific officials associations in Southern California are responsible for their umpires and referees, but former local football official David Gutierrez said that associations play favorites between a generation gap. That’s partially why he retired from officiating in 2013.
“The youngsters want to work varsity games right away, and they don’t want to put in the work and earn that spot,” Gutierrez said. “Then the older generation scoffs at lower levels, and take all of the big games. In my last year I had 12 new (football referees) come in, and seven of them didn’t make it to the first game. For lack of a better word, it’s depressing. You do everything you can to get them interested, and it’s just not there anymore.”
Wigod argues that being a high school official is still a great part-time job for high school or college students.
“You can go to community college from 8 till noon, and then go out and work lower level soccer or basketball games,” Wigod said. “You make $75 for a couple hours of work. There isn’t a job you’re going to find that’s going to pay you $35 an hour as a college student.”
Jeff Day is a local basketball referee who has been working with CIF since the late 1980’s, and he also helps with the Long Beach middle school sports. Day agrees that refs are well compensated, but only after a few years on the job.
“It can kind of be an expensive start,” Day said. “Most of that goes to the uniform, the annual dues are like $130, and the assigning fee is about 7 percent of a game check. First year officials are usually 18-25 years old, and they’re spending $300-400 to just get started.”
Day has seen the change at high school sporing events as coaches, parents and athletes have all become more intense. He said that has a lot to do with who the coaches are.
“In the past there were a lot more teachers, educators and people affiliated with the schools that were refereeing,” Day said. “Now there are more walk-on coaches, and there isn’t as much accountability. In general, you notice the difference.”
Day also said that the growth of travel ball and summer leagues has allowed high school referees to just do one sport for the entire year, instead of working multiple high school sports like in the past.
High school officials have to do 18 hours of classroom time every year for qualification testing, and Hare thinks that extra work is changing the quality of applicant.
“When unemployment is low, a lot of guys don’t want to do it,” Hare said. “These days the problems that arise are chasing the white collar workers out of the business. It’s leaning more towards a blue collar job. A lot of the time there’s less professionalism.”
Everyone knows that professionalism has to be supported by all parties involved, especially the coaches, parents and players. Wilson baseball coach Andy Hall said he’s tried to be more understanding with officials after seeing a video highlight of himself get ejected from a game.
“I’ve really tried to tone it down,” Hall said. “I know that I’ve pissed off most of the umpires in Long Beach at some point or another. When I finally got a chance to see (the umpire who ejected me) I apologized profusely. It’s important that we all treat each other with a level of respect. Most of us are wrong half of the time anyways.”
That is a fine sentiment, and one that everyone can agree with when they’re not in the heat of battle. But emotions get the best of all of us. Davies said last week he politely told an offensive lineman that he was holding, and that it would get a flag thrown if he did it again. The player cursed loudly at Davies, and got a flag for unsportsmanlike behavior.
“The officials are being driven away because of the behavior of students today,” Davies said. “They don’t want to listen to the garbage.”
“We have to find (new officials) who have the time and willingness to learn and absorb the amount of punishment,” said Jerry Lozano, former Long Beach water polo officials assigner and president. “There are coaches out there who are screaming maniacs. Some parents have kids who play a sport for two or three years and they think they have a P.H.D. in the sport. It is an unenviable task to be an officials assigner in any sport.”
Wigod said there are different programs available that mentor new officials, and help sponsor them for reduced fees and dues.
“Our job is to just continually help coordinate the effort and work with people all over the section on how to get more and more people involved in officiating,” Wigod said.
“The guys who are hanging in there trying to make it work are guys who really have a passion for it,” Hare said. “Do we always make the right calls? No. Do we always try our best? Yes.”