Referees: whether you love them or hate them, sports do not exist without their participation. They are as integral to sports as the players themselves.
Yet, they are often treated with contempt, despair, hatred, abuse, and the first to be blamed when things go wrong. If they do a perfect job, no one notices or cares. But if they make one mistake? It becomes the end of the world.
Referees are walking away from sports in droves at all levels, which means there’s less referees at the professional levels of sport to choose from.
There are stories of referees doing multiple games in a single weekend because of the shortage. There are stories of referees being physically attacked at junior games because a parent disagreed with a call.
This is absolutely unacceptable, and yet it keeps happening. Eventually there will be no referees because no one will want to do it, and without the referees, we do not have sport.
The thing that binds whole communities together. That creates life-long bonds amongst friends. That gives us a few hours of escape every single week. That has created whole careers for people in the media. Without sports, none of that exists.
So why do we continually treat referees the way that we do? What can be done to fix it? How do we stop referees leaving in droves? How do we fix what is quite clearly a problem before it becomes completely unfixable?
The Inner Sanctum asked five current and former referees from various sports (one has requested anonymity due to their current roles) to delve deep into the issue, and will be referred to throughout the piece as what is listed below.
Referee One, who currently referees basketball at a college level, volleyball, and occasionally football (soccer) in the USA, and has previously worked little league and youth football (soccer).
Lara Griffin, who referees netball and was a coordinator at a junior club.
Jon Apotsis, who referees football (soccer).
James, who referees field hockey.
Emma Morris and Ashara Peiris, who previously and currently referee Quidditch/Quadball respectively.
How hard is it to actually referee?
On the surface, being a referee seems like an easy thing to do. You read a rulebook, understand it, get tested on it, get a license, and you’re free to go.
But the rulebooks are often quite nuanced to cover every possible scenario of every single rule, with some spanning hundreds of pages in length.
Referees have to remember every single word on every single one of these pages to do their job, while only getting a single look at the play to rule on for sports that do not have video review.
Try to imagine how hard that is. Having to remember every single thing your job requires you to do. On the spot, with an inordinate amount of pressure on you, and no chance for a do-over if you get it wrong.
A mistake at work can usually be fixed. You can remake that customer’s meal. You can fix the error in that spreadsheet.
What a referee can not do is reverse that decision that they have had a single look at.
Referee One, however, looks at it slightly differently.
“I think it’s hard to do it well. I don’t know that it’s necessarily hard to just do it,” they said.
“I think you can train someone to understand a set of rules, this is a ball, this is a strike, this is a foul, and to get them to execute that on a basic level.
“I do think at some level you can get someone to an entry-level very quickly, but to advance beyond that not only requires a certain amount of dedication from the person who wants to become a referee, but from an organisation or a mentor to invest in developing that person.”
Jon Apotsis expressed a similar viewpoint to Referee One, and noted that a lot of factors come into play when determining how easy or difficult it is to referee.
These factors include things like experience as a referee, the skill level of the players, the soundness of the knowledge and interpretation of the laws of the game, the player-management skills, fitness and endurance, and the confidence to manage things with the coaches.
It’s also not just about the rulebook. For Lara Griffin, the physical and mental aspect takes its toll.
“You need to watch up to 12 players at once, seeing who’s touching who, how they’re touching, if they’re standing in the part of the court they’re allowed to stand, how far away the defending player is from the person with the ball, which foot the player with the ball landed on, if they move their feet, how long they hold it for, etc.” Griffin said.
“You are watching for a lot of things all at once, and you will never ever see everything. You need to be in the exact right position in the court, look in the right direction at the right time.
“It’s physically demanding. I have torn my Achilles umpiring, my knees hurt from running sideways, I literally sprint when umpiring high level games and I often do three games a night, so sprinting on and off for 3x40mins.
“Communication and situational awareness are also key aspects of reffing which take time to develop.
“You then have to manage how you talk to players so they respect you, and know what level of stuff to let go and what will cause fights.”
“When you’re trying to master the craft, there’s a lot more to it,” Referee One added.
“There’s a lot in terms of not just knowing what is the rule, but how to enforce the rule and when to enforce the rule and how to communicate with people, how to communicate with players and coaches.
“The amount of time that you have to invest in rules knowledge to not only understand the letter of the law but the spirit of it as well.”
How do we get ‘better’ referees or ‘more consistent’ referees?
Often you’ll hear fans say things like ‘we just want better referees’ or ‘we just want consistency’. Why is this such a common thing, and how hard is it to get both of those things?
For Referee One, it is not just the fans that want both of these things, but the officials as well.
“I would respond to the first one by saying referees also want better referees,” they said.
“Most people who are out there have an interest in becoming better at it. That doesn’t mean that you on any given day watching a game have the best, most experienced, highest level referee.
“You might have that person who is working their first game at that next level and you might be inclined to say “oh, this person has no idea what they are doing”, and frankly to some degree you might be right.
“They might be someone who is getting thrown in there and getting their first chance to advance. They might be having problems away from the court or the field that they didn’t do a good job of separating out before they got out there.
“For those who say they want more consistency… when fans watch a game, they often watch with their hearts as often as they watch with their eyes, and that can cloud your judgement of consistency.
“I want nothing more than to be consistent from start to finish. When I go back and I watch video later of my games to review my own performance, I want to see that what was a foul at one end of the court I called a foul at the other end of the court. That I was giving each team the best application of the rules to have a fair contest.
“For fans who say they want better referees, they want more consistent referees, there’s always an instinct among us to say “well then come out and do it, come out and try it,” but people have lives. They don’t always have time. They don’t always have the interest in doing it.
“It is in some way inherent on those of us who have a passion for it to be as good and consistent as we can for everybody.”
For Griffin, as important as consistency is, it is something that can also be hard to achieve.
“Consistency is really important as an umpire,” Griffin said.
“In saying that, it can be hard to be consistent. In netball, needing to be consistent in what you deem to be three feet is hard, because as you get mentally and physically tired, you are less consistent.
“Measuring three seconds is hard when you don’t have a stopwatch that you can stare at, and you are watching half a court of players.
“Often you will only see the retaliation, not the initial incident, so you unfairly penalise someone.”
James, similarly to Referee One, looked at it from a perspective that puts it back onto the fans.
“At a high level, umpires in most sports are ridiculously consistent,” James said.
“Issues often arise because fans and players do not know the nuance of many rules. This is particularly common when rule changes are made, as well as when umpires are instructed [by governing bodies] to change interpretations of rules.
“AFL comes to mind – slight rule changes and interpretation changes are common, and without proper education and communication to the masses, many decisions look incorrect.
“Particularly in sports where this kind of thing is common, more transparency in how rules are applied would go a long way, but fans need to be ready to learn too – tough when they tend to support one side.”
Apotsis also puts the onus back on the fans.
“Wanting consistency and better referees are comments taken with a grain of salt,” Apotsis said.
“Everyone will complain when they’re on the receiving end of what they deem to be an unfair decision or VAR review. There’s no pleasing everyone. Especially when the same critics don’t expend as much effort educating themselves on the laws of the game.
“Otherwise, they’d quickly learn that the majority of decisions made are generally correct.”
Emma Morris takes the approach of looking at it from a slightly different perspective, given that Quidditch does not have external referees.
Because of the nature of the sport, the referees are also made up of the playing community who will referee when they are not playing a game on a particular game slot.
“To get ‘better referees’ you need to have people willing to referee in the first place, and to get ‘consistency’ you need to have regular games during which these referees can practice,” Morris said.
“Ideally, referee teams would not be players, because there is always going to be an extra layer of conflicting relationships between referees and people they know within the community – whether it be friendships or otherwise.
“I think the expectations the crowd and teams often have of referees is also not taking into account that a referee can’t see everything, they can’t anticipate every situation, therefore there will be things they miss, and there will be times when their positioning is not great.”
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Why are referees leaving in droves?
Whether it is because of abuse, injuries, a lack of safety, or respect, there are far too many referees leaving.
For Referee One, they still officiate, but are being far more selective about when and where they choose to officiate.
“I’ve stopped working most rec [recreational] sports. I don’t feel that there are adequate security and safety measures in place often enough for me to go out there and put myself in that environment,” they said.
This presents a long-term problem. If you want there to be officials at the highest level, they need to start somewhere in order to develop those skills, and be treated with respect as they develop those skills.
“In general, umpires need to be made to feel like they are respected and valued,” Griffin said.
“Coaching and support for umpires is essential, helping growth but also backup.
“Players need to have more respect for umpires, because being upset at a call is understandable, but being abusive, particularly to young umpires is inappropriate.
“I have had to threaten to kick out so many players, spectators, and coaches for the disgusting way they were speaking to players and umpires, including when I was training a 12-year-old to start umpiring.
“[An] understanding of their own skills as well would be ideal – players often aren’t as good as they think they are. There needs to be an increase in respect for umpires by players, spectators and coaches.”
For Referee One, they think that the organisations need to play a huge role in ensuring that not only are safe working environments provided, but that organisations need to make sure the right protocols are in place to support development of referees.
“When I think about stopping attrition among referees, the first thing I think about is [that] this needs to be supported at all levels of a sports organisation,” they said.
“That has to start at the very top of the organisation, whatever board, or whatever president is in charge of that association needs to make clear, especially if we’re talking about youth sports, needs to make clear to everyone involved what the ground rules are when it comes to referees.”
Referee One talked about a story where they have worked basketball tournaments, and found themselves on the outside because the support was not there because it was not economically viable for the organisation to support the officials.
“I’ve run into situations where we’ve had disagreements between coaches, players, fans, and officials, and often the tournament organisers are much more concerned about that team saying that it’s going to leave and not come back to that tournament’s events anymore.
“That tournament organiser is often far more concerned about losing the hundreds or thousands of dollars that team brings than they are about losing an official making $25 a game.
“I understand the economics of it, but it’s not hard to look around the world and see that it is becoming more difficult to convince people to go out and referee.
“If you paid me $35 instead of $25, $40 instead of $25, I’m still not going out and doing it if I don’t feel safe.
“I need to know that I’m being provided a safe and supported environment to do the job.”
Ashara Peiris agrees with Referee One, in that it is on the organisations hiring these officials to make sure that referees stick around.
“Give them incentives to stay. Better pay, better non-monetary incentives, [things like that],” Peiris said.
“[They] also need to ensure that they [the referees] want to do it – so making sure that they have the power to properly enforce things where players are being abusive.
“You don’t want to suggest a player be banned due to abusive behaviour and then see them back on pitch shortly afterwards.”
James made a similar point to Referee One about organisations providing a safe environment to protect and develop the next generation of officials, as well as educating the spectators.
“Most parents at an U15s match are fantastic to both the players and young officials, but a small percentage seem to fail to recognize that the person with the whistle is a kid too,” James said.
“I’ve been an umpire manager at tournaments where 16 year old girls have come off at half time in tears because somebody’s dad is calling them a cheat from the sideline.
“In most cases of spectator abuse, recourse is much more limited than something like player or coach abuse, and just about nothing can be done during the match.
“I’d like to see this change as junior umpires are our future and too many are driven away before they get a chance to develop.”
For Apotsis, the answer is a simple one.
“Stemming the exodus of referees will take a culture change in the football community.”
Dealing with abuse just for doing your job
Referee One understands there is a certain level of abuse you expect to face as an official.
“Yell at me all day long. Call me whatever you want to call me. Tell me how terrible my calls are. I don’t care about any of that. That’s all part of what I accept as part of being an official,” they said on the subject of dealing with abuse.
“You want to yell at me when you pay for your ticket, ‘you’re a bum’ and ‘you’re blind’, I don’t mind that at all.”
A lot of the problems come when that abuse goes from more harmless things and crosses the line, making referees scared for their safety.
“But there’s a line that’s crossed when you break that wall. When you try to confront me because once I’m out of the gym, once I’m off the field and into the parking lot, I’m not a referee anymore,” Referee One continued.
“I’m just another person that you’re confronting and I don’t understand why people think that that is an acceptable way to deal with something that happens within a game. Often within a kids game.
“I’ve been scared to leave a game.
“It’s happened at the youth level, it’s happened at the high school level, it’s happened in different sports.
“I’ve had high school soccer parents try to start a fight with me in a parking lot. I’ve had youth little league coaches following me off the field. I’ve had basketball parents trying to get to me after a game.
“It’s happened more than once, and ultimately because this is a second job for most people, you’re going to eventually move away from that. It’s just not worth it.
“I’ve worked a high school basketball game where we’ve gone over at one of the last time outs to the police at the school and said, ‘you’re going to need to make sure that we get back into the locker room,’ because we could see that fans were starting to get agitated to the point that they might get in our way.”
Walking away from reffing
This piece has already touched on the decision of Referee One made to walk away from officiating youth and recreational sports over safety concerns, but if certain things were to be put in place, they would happily return.
“If the safety and security of youth sports were improved to a level that I thought created the right environment for officials, I would happily work youth sports again,” they said.
“I love being in those environments. There’s nothing for me that’s more fun than going along in a 10 or 11-year-old’s basketball game when the kids are just getting excited about learning the game and just getting excited about playing.
“I get to work with young officials who are just starting and get to pass on some of the knowledge the people who trained me gave to me.
‘I love being in that environment. I’m not happy about the decision that I’ve made to pass up youth sports but it became a quality of life issue for me.”
For Apotsis, the decision that stopped him from walking away was made for him.
“COVID voided the season, so I didn’t need to physically step away. That was kind of done for me,” he said.
“It’s [the abuse] made it difficult to feel motivated to volunteer my time for certain competitions though, when I can find other ways of being involved in refereeing, where I don’t have to interact with certain players/coaches.”
Griffin has chosen to step back from reffing, but not given it up completely. That may change in the future.
“I almost did [give it up]. I was sick of being abused every week,” Griffin said.
“I had seriously hurt my ankle [including tearing a ligament and my Achilles] five times in one year, I was exhausted from uni and work, and I took a year off.
“I have now gone back to earn some more money, but I have decided not to pursue higher umpiring accreditation. I will only umpire until I no longer enjoy it. I have not taken on any extra responsibilities and I do not give a rats arse about what happens.
“I prefer to play over umpiring, and have dropped several nights umpiring after finding a team to play in. For the amount of time I have, umpiring is not worth giving up the things which make me happy, or working to earn more money.”
This article started with “Referees. Whether you love them or hate them, sports do not exist without their participation. They are as integral to sports as the players themselves.”
What these interviews have indicated is that as a collective, we need to treat them better. We can talk to them, be polite about it, be more understanding of the difficulty that comes with the role, and make sports a better place for ‘the third team’.
Otherwise, we may not be able to enjoy sports forever, because there will be no one around to officiate them.
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