The Most Thankless Job in Sports

By Scott Rosberg

Referee

This summer I was asked by our high school’s girls’ basketball coach to referee some summer scrimmage games they were playing against a couple other schools. While I have done my share of refereeing scrimmages, intramural games, and youth camp games, I am not an official. I am a coach. I have coached for 30+ years, so I know the game, and I know how to coach the game. (Although I am sure you would get some arguments on that point from some of the fans and parents of players of mine through the years!)

Officiating is not my thing. I am okay at it, but I have not been trained in it, never been to a clinic on it, and never been to any officials’ study tables. (Yes, officials go to weekly study tables during their seasons to learn how to officiate better.) I know most of the rules, the basics of where to stand, what to look for, and what some of the hand signals are when making a call.

I ran hard up and down the floor that night, trying to see as many things as I could, but I realized there was no way I could see it all. While I was running down the floor to get into position, there were things happening behind me or across the court that I didn’t see. Even when I was in position, there was too much going on with ten people running around, all moving at the same time, trying to go to the same places, bumping into each other, swinging arms, touching, pushing, falling, all while trying to put a ball in a basket or keeping someone else from doing just that.

Also, I had one perspective, from one angle, with one set of eyes to process what I saw through all those bodies. I then made a judgment on what I saw. The fans had a different perspective, angle, and set of eyes from which they saw it, albeit from a lot farther away. I may have seen it correctly, or I may not have. The same holds true for the fans. But somehow, when fans think they saw it right and the official saw it wrong, they get upset, sometimes VERY UPSET. Their perspective and view doesn’t mean they were right, but just that they saw it differently.

But officials are expected to be perfect. They are expected to see everything that is happening and to see it perfectly and then make a judgment perfectly. Where else in the world does this happen? I can think of no job in our world like it. Quite honestly, it is an impossible job. Try it sometime. In fact, you might have to in the future. (More on that later)

For the Kids
And yet, I think I could be a decent official if I ever decided to become one. I feel that way because when I am officiating, I want to be good at it for the kids. That inspires me to try really hard to get every call right. I feel they deserve me to give my best to them. There are probably some officials out there who don’t necessarily feel that way, and I believe those officials need to either change their attitude or get out of officiating. However, for the most part, I believe officials want to do a good job. They are trying their best to be their best, just like the players and coaches are.

Unfortunately, officials are often not seen this way. They are viewed through a myopic lens that is totally subjective based upon the individual views of the people watching them. These people generally feel that all officials or certain officials are either bad officials, bad people, trying to screw their team, or trying to screw any visiting team. These fans watch the games through a lens that is completely one-sided.

They’re Human
But officials are human. They make mistakes. They have feelings. They have two eyes that allow them to only see so much of the court, field, mat, pitch, or whatever surface is being played on. They have to move fast to get into position to see all that they can see. They then have to make split-second judgments on what they have seen or believe they have seen. They then have to blow a whistle, raise their hands, and verbally announce their judgment. And they do this knowing that a large percentage of the people playing and watching will not like their announcement and will let everyone within earshot of their very loud voice know their displeasure.

Often, this vocalizing will come in the form of an attack of the official, sometimes in a very personal way. As if the official just did something so horrible to them, their team, or their little baby out there (who may have actually done the thing the official said s/he did), that they feel it is their God-given right to yell from the mountaintops the injustice that has just occurred. These people’s response is not confined to a one-on-one meeting behind closed doors where the supposed infraction by the official can be discussed and defended. No, this is done in the most public of venues with the officials having just about no recourse, no way to explain themselves, and no way to convince those in disagreement why they decided on that judgment.

Imagine if in your workplace, every decision you made was scrutinized and then criticized in this same fashion as officials are criticized. Imagine if your boss, immediate supervisor, or co-workers were to yell at you the way that fans yell at officials on just about every decision you make. How long would you last in that job? How well would you perform at that job knowing that each decision would be met with such harsh judgment, derisiveness, ridicule, scorn, and venom?

It’s almost laughable when I think of some of the people who are coming to my mind that I have known who have treated officials this way, and I consider how they would be rolled up into the fetal position and crying if they were spoken to just once the way they speak to officials on a regular basis.

And yet, there is nothing funny about it. Officials are doing a job, a job that must be done, and a job that without them doing it would mean that our children would not get to play the games that they want to play. We are losing officials faster than we are getting new ones, and the #1 reason for that is the way they are treated by fans and by coaches.

A Shortage of Officials
Mike Morgan, one of our speakers for Proactive Coaching, does an outstanding presentation on “Partnering with Officials.” (I highly recommend you check it out at the Proactive Coaching website.) In it, he talks about how coaches, athletes, parents, & fans need to work with officials and try to better understand what they go through. He discusses the three groups of officials that we now have – baby boomers who are finishing their officiating, young officials who are just getting started, and those in the middle. Twenty years ago, the middle group was the largest group. They had been the young, fresh officials at one time, and they enjoyed it enough to stay in it and get pretty good at it. They soon became the middle group of veterans.

But nowadays, that group is the smallest group. Why? Because while they are the young officials just getting started, they get ridiculed and chastised at elementary school & middle school games, AAU tournaments, and the variety of youth league games so much that they decide it’s not worth it. They can make $50.00 a night doing something that is far easier and a lot less stressful.

What a shame. The young people who finish playing their games after high school or college are the best candidates to become the next wave of officials. They love their games, want to stay involved in them, and want to give back to them, so they decide to become officials. But it doesn’t take very long (sometimes the very first game they officiate) for them to realize that it’s just no fun to give their effort to something that they just get yelled at mercilessly by people they don’t even know. So they quit.

The problem is that with them quitting and the older veteran officials quitting, the middle group of officials who have dealt with it long enough to get good at it and who also know what they are getting into but have developed a thicker skin to deal with it are not being developed. And so we have a shortage of officials.

What does this shortage mean? Games being re-scheduled and even cancelled because we don’t have enough officials available on certain nights and days. Games that are poorly officiated because there is not a veteran on the crew, so young, inexperienced, nervous officials are officiating games that are “out of their league” in terms of the skills and experience necessary to have a well-officiated game.

So where is it going? Unfortunately, we are headed to more of the above, but worse. We are headed to a time when we will not have games for our kids because there will be no one to officiate them. I’m sure some of you are thinking I am being melodramatic, that the day that happens will never come. I hope so, but I am worried. As an athletic director for 12 years, I saw the change happen before my eyes. In my last five years as an AD in two different states, I saw the number of games at both the high school and middle school level that we had to re-schedule or eventually cancel because of no officials increase dramatically, and I see nothing that would indicate the trend is being reversed.

It’s Up to Us
So how do we change it? That’s exactly it – WE CHANGE. The officials don’t need to change. They need to keep working hard at their craft, but most of them have always done that. We – coaches, athletes, parents, grandparents, and fans – need to stop behaving the way we are behaving. We need to cut them some slack, lay off them, and give them a break. We need to recognize that it is a thankless job that they are doing to help our children out.

We need to be grateful that they are out there trying to do their best. We need to treat them with dignity and respect, just like we would want to be treated if we were in their black patent leather sneakers. In other words, we need to treat them like the human beings that they are and that deserve to be treated like anyone else trying to make a little part of our world better.

If we don’t, then there is probably only one alternative – WE DO IT. We will need to become the officials for our kids’ games. Are we all ready for that? I doubt it. Because if we were, we would already be doing it.

So the next time you feel the urge to yell at an official because you feel that you saw better from 50 feet away and from a totally different angle and perspective what s/he saw five feet away, consider the alternative. Step up and do the right thing. Lay off of the officials. Otherwise, you may have to become one yourself if you want to see our games continue to be played.

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Scott Rosberg
Teaching and Coaching have been two of my greatest passions since I began my career over 30 years ago. I have always believed that as coaches, we are teachers just like any classroom teacher. However, we are entrusted with so much more than just teaching skills and techniques of our specific sports. We are role models, counselors, and educators of the many life lessons that sports can teach young people. Find more articles like this at: http://www.coachwithcharacter.com/
Scott Rosberg

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November 15, 2016 – Washington, DC, USA – 20161115 – Georgetown head coach JOHN THOMPSON III confers with a referee during the first half against Maryland at the Verizon Center in Washington. (Credit Image: � Chuck Myers via ZUMA Wire)
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34 Comments

  1. Bob Angeli said:

    I was at the game with G’Town and Maryland, Thompson worked the officials the entire first half. It was ridiculous. I’m a 25 year fast pitch softball umpire and appreciate this article.

  2. Benjamin Gehlhausen said:

    Hey Scott,

    Great article. Just wanted to mention that the official talking with coach Thompson is Paul Szelc so that he could have some credit for the fine work he does in the game.

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  4. Jim S said:

    I coached baseball for 18 years and umpired (at same time plus) for 22-23 years. Yes, I was PERFECT. I NEVER missed a ball/strike or safe/out call. Well at least in my mind I didn’t. And trust me, I heard from parents, fans, other teams, coaches, etc. But I never let that bother me. Because I was taught by a very good friend of mind that it’s about the kids and never try to be the show as a coach or as an umpire. I approached it that way and hopefully I pulled it off. I won a couple championships as a coach, one I shouldn’t have won and lost 1 or 2 I should have won. I think I was a better umpire than a coach and actually enjoyed it more (fewer people to keep happy). But it was a good 23 + years well spent. Later I helped my son coach my grandsons in baseball for a couple years. wouldnt’ trade it.

    • Joe Peters said:

      Perfect? That’s a fallacy. If you think you had a perfect game you aren’t doing enough self-reflection after a game. Perfection is the dangling carrot in front of us to keep us improving.

  5. Steve O'Bryan said:

    Excellent article and, being a referee/umpire in a handful of sports at all levels, you are spot on in your assesments. Vet officials and AD’s need to take the lead in instructing coaches and fans to lay off the young, new ones. Parents/fans need to put the classroom perspective into play and realize the kids playing the game are learning valuable life skills and PLAYING A GAME! Great analogies about work environments. It’s not about “winning”, it’s the lessons we learn along the way, just a reflection of life.

  6. Paul B. Jones, Sr. said:

    I really appreciate this article. I’ve officiated three sports from recreational to college and this piece is spot on. Officiating has become a thankless job and I don’t see things getting better, not because their skills are deteriorating but rather due to the overall lack of appreciation.

  7. Kevin said:

    This comes the closest to explaining why I hung up my whistle this year after a combined 20 years or so officiating. It just wasn’t fun anymore. Every year I couldn’t wait to get my rulebooks spiral bound, highlight the sections I’ve missed in previous years, review rule changes, and prepare for our annual test(s). Rules clinics, swapping “war” stories, you name it I was there. I hadn’t gotten to state playoff level but had a very full schedule of varsity assignments.

    My low point was reached toward the end of last season when I was accused by a parent of pushing a player. My wife asked me why I continued to officiate and for the first time I didn’t have an answer. Thinking back on the abuse rained down by players, coaches, fans, getting followed out to my car, and needing a police escort on other occasions it occurred to me it just wasn’t worth it anymore.

    I haven’t regretted the decision to hang it up yet nor do I expect to. We’re not saints and, as the author pointed out, all-too-human sometimes. We do want to do the right thing and are always searching for that “perfect game” where every call is the right one. Someone else will need to find it now, though, because I’m done.

  8. Scott Weber said:

    Great article!! EVERY parent who has children in ANY sports should be required to read this!! Being a baseball umpire for 30 + years, I’ve seen my share of abusive parents and have been threatened by some. But I still show up and do my job the best that I can.

  9. Jean S. Szen said:

    About thirty years ago some of our family watched an evening game of pick-up basketball of local HS boys at a nearby park. My son was the ref & I was shocked at the behavior of the parents; their language & demeanor was so insulting & demeaning to team members & the ref. My husband told me walk away from it when a wonderful thing happened. An unusually irate mother spewed her venom on the ref , as he walked toward he took his whistle off & handed it to her. She backed off & the game continued.
    Without a spoken word a sportsmanship lesson was learned!

  10. Diggy said:

    Amazing article. As a younger official, I strive to do the best I can every time I stop on the court, and coaches do appreciate it. Hustle is something that you can’t question, and when I’m 5 feet away from the play and I make an emphatic block/charge call, the coach has to just trust my judgement, because I definitely made the effort to get in position to see the play. I definitely wish more coaches understood our side like you did. Any more importantly, understood that I don’t care who wins this D3/D2 game tonight, so stop acting like I do! Great article, and thanks for sharing!

  11. Jeff Morris said:

    I was a basketball referee at a chapter and my certifacatio ran out. Went and took the class again. The guy that ran the chapter I was in told me not to take the course again because I messed up on a couple of games and he won’t give me any games

    • CharlieRef said:

      @Jeff
      I am sorry you had this experience. You didn’t say how old you are, where you live or what level you worked. Depending on the size of your city you should have other options. Don’t let one person stop you from getting the experience that will help you grow and improve as an official. If it didn’t work in this chapter, find another assigner who will give you the chance to work games that are the right level for you. Also consider other sports, not just basketball. All sports currently have a shortage of officials. It’s a great way to earn extra money whatever your financial situation, and most importantly it benefits the kids involved. Good luck and don’t give up.

  12. Jesse Reed said:

    Having officiated high school and some college basketball as well as a baseball umpire in the last 33years . I have made many mistakes in both . Some fans need to realize , we are only human . If we are are all perfect in our games , why are we at the the level we are. We are there for a reason ……. Step back and think about it , will only make you better and more appreciative for the job . I say a prayer before each one of my games .Thanking God for the opportunity to do what I and other officials enjoy doing and for the many friends I have made over the years .

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  14. nfl2ncaa@yahoo.com said:

    What a thoughtful and insightful article this is. Thank You! Every JV parent thinks their athlete is a Varsity starter, every Varsity parent thinks there athlete is a D-1 star in the making and the only reason the parent’s dreams aren’t being met is clearly because of us, the officials. We are holding their kid back. I officiate basketball from middle school level through varsity and the intensity expressed by crowds is palpable. Personally, I feed off the energy of the crowd. The more intense they are, the more engaged and active I am. A quiet, humble crowd gets our A games, but the intense crowd draws our triple A games. As stated in this article, officials are leaving the game because it is quite difficult to work 8, 10, 12 hours a day, drive an hour to a game to officiate, simply to be put through the brazen attacks of observers that seem to relish their perceived right to unload frustrations stemming from unsatisfied personal lives, on to the easy targets that wear stripes for a couple of hours a night. I have no intention to go anywhere. I love officiating, but if something doesn’t change, the exodus will grow and what will we say to our children then…..

  15. Dennis Rangel said:

    Mr. Rosberg, as it has been said numerus times in the articles about beautiful article, after 50 years of officiating I am leaving the ranks, not because of the outsiders who have no clue on what officiating involves. After all the years of involvement it is my choice to leave the games. I feel I can no longer give the player’s the top of my game so rather than stay I choose to leave. I feel that once you have earned your patch or patches from whatever organization you have been with in whatever sport after 5 years you are then looked at by coaches and other official’s as this kind of official. So as one moves on in their sport as long as you are consistent and continuing to improve most coaches will let you be and the crowd usually follows the coaches feelings. I see that the officiating in all sports is down and as you have mentioned it’s because of the parents and crowds behavior’s which I totally agree with but as a young official you have to understand what you are getting into before you get into it if you have any doubt’s don’t do it because when you doubt yourself you already have a strike against you . So remember if you decide to do it remember it is for the player’s no matter what age you are doing this for and as for the outsiders who you have to understand have a very limited clue of the sport you hear them but you don’t. Good luck to all of the official’s who continue to do their job’s for the love of the game.

  16. Scott Rosberg said:

    Thanks to all of you for your kind words about my article. Thanks, also, to all of you officials for the work you do. While I have been on the other side of the lines from you while coaching my teams, I have always understood that you have an extremely difficult job to do out there. I appreciate those officials who give everything they have to the game, hustling, working hard, and trying their best to be their best, just like I appreciate players and coaches who do the same.

    Of course, I haven’t always agreed with every call that officials have made through the years, and I have let them know my feelings at times. I am human, just like you are, and I made some mistakes in my reactions. But as I continued to coach, I realized, you’re going to make some mistakes, just like I will and just like my players will. I also grew to realize that there are times when I think you made a mistake, but in reality, I may have just seen it differently, and you actually made the proper call. It’s all about your perspective when you make a call. Coaches, players, and fans need to understand that and start behaving appropriately. Unfortunately, I don’t see it getting better before it gets worse. I, for one though, will be doing my part as a coach to help it get better. Thanks, again, to all of you.

  17. Charles Allison said:

    I’ve read a lot of these “come to Jesus” articles lately but you know what, until little Johnny America’s mom and dad have to sit at home becaus the schools have gotten serious about their behavior, until coaches quit acting like we’re the enemy, or until more schools are actually cancelling games because nobody will call them then I am afraid it is falling on deaf ears.

  18. Coachjf said:

    Where is the accountability for officials? Coaches lose games and they get fired. Players make mistakes and they get cut or sent to the bench. Officials miss calls that impact games and are accountable to no one.

    • Mark said:

      You are wrong, just because you are not entitled to know what accountability an official faces does not mean it didn’t happen. Officials get suspended, have assignments taken away and miss playoff opportunities because they are held accountable.

      • Coachjf said:

        Sure! When I have a varsity official tell me if I have a bad season I’ll be fired but he has a bad season he’ll be right back at it. How about at least having the nerve to say you kicked a call when it happens in real time. The how dare you question me attitude is sad.

  19. Dan Hanley said:

    32 years as a High School wrestling official and 13 years as an NCAA Official. Very well defined problem. As “Past President of our local Officials association, I see first hand the 5 year official that’s say, 26 or 27 years old, gets married and soon after resigns as an Official. Their theory, why go get yelled at for 2 hours by fans and coaches to get home and get yelled at for another two hours by my wife, for being away from the family.
    The rest… My view is “Never Perfect, Always fair”. What most coaches and parents don’t understand is that when we’re at the top of our vocation, we fret over the smallest of errors. I lay in bed after a match that I should have performed better at for hours trying to figure out how to make it better next match. I’m at the top of my game today, and will probably stay with it until my body says no more, or my friends tell me I’m falling off on my capabilities. I am confident that I can officiate as good as anyone in the Nation. But can I do it in front of 20,000 people? Mic’d up? on ESPN? Have proven that yet.
    I’ve been on the mat since 5th grade, except for the first two years after college. My closest friends in this world are wrestling officials too. Until you’ve experienced and mastered that pressure, you can’t understand the feeling of success. Shame that the Mid tier guys probably won’t stay with it long enough to ever get to that point. Thanks for the great insight into our LoVE.

  20. Alan Bork said:

    I ref over 300 games a year. I agree with what you say. Coaches to me are the #1 problem: if they are out of control that leads the fans to feel they should follow the coaches lead an yell too, then the players follow the parents and coach. The complainers then come up to you (if they win) an say sorry for yell i,m just very competitive those coaches i have no time for! I dont have a problem with being questioned about a call. Talk to the ref dont disrespect.

  21. Coachjf said:

    Oh my goodness the whining about the parents, fans, coaches being all over you. If you would have the courage to admit when you blow a call people would have more respect for you. This I’m holier then thou when working a game is awful. You kicked a call be a man no excuses you kicked it. Coaches have more respect when you do that.

    I had the best quote from a varsity official last year. He said coach you have a losing record your looking for a job. I have a bad game tonight I’ll still be officiating.

    • Charley Poole said:

      I have never met you and never want to! With your attitude about this article, I can tell what kind of person you are during a game. The type of coach everyone dreads when they get you on their schedule!! You made an earlier statement about officials who make calls that impact games. If one call causes you to lose a game, did you deserve to win in the first place, and how many times have you benefitted from calls that were wrong that went in YOUR favor?? Still want them to admit to their mistake?? You expect an official to admit to the calls they miss and THEN you will respect them. Do you admit to the coaching mistakes YOU make??? I doubt it very much. No official has ever worked a perfect game and never will, but most try to every time they work a game of any kind. There are people who put on a striped shirt or umpire jersey who will never be very good or work at a high level, but at least they try. Coaches like you and fans that think they know everything and are clueless about rules and mechanics are the reason why officiating numbers are declining in EVERY sport EVERY year. When the day comes that your AD comes to you and says, “No game tonight, we can’t get any refs”, it will be too late to start showing respect!! You probably will think that I am a jerk also, but the truth is, I am a 41 year veteran who has worked at the college level as well as high school who is in the twilight of my career and am very sad to see what is coming to sports down the line. The truth of the matter is; no one respects authority of any kind anymore and when they don’t get their way, they want to make life miserable for those around them. Sad but true!

  22. Football Ref from Saskatchewan said:

    Thank you for writing what all of us officials have been thinking and some of us preaching. I would love to see it become mandatory in all sports for the coaches to attend AND pass an officiating clinic for their chosen sport. We are focusing efforts to teach respect in sport, but that still seems to fall short of the officials.

    On the other hand, I have worked with officials over the years that certainly don’t do us any favours when it comes to the reputation of officials. If we make a mistake, we need to own it. We are also equally responsible for treating coaches, players, and fans with respect. Hopefully we will get it back. We all have to remember why we do what we do. It is for the kids and the integrity of the game.

  23. Terry Twibell said:

    Incedible article. Cuts right to the point with youth basketball in many cases getting worse and worse. I am IAABO New York official. Parents behavior is typically worse than coaches or kids.

    • Scott said:

      Thanks, Terry. From the responses and feedback I have received to this post, we have a lot of work to do on this topic. I will definitely be writing more about it in the future. Thanks for all you do as an official!

  24. Bob Gunning said:

    Retired college and high school basketball official (45 years) and read this article with the same conclusion as the author. Almost without exception, the officials I know do it for the kids.
    The job is thankless
    Bob Gunning, IAABO Bd 6
    Connecticut

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