Whistle On The Play – officials cry foul

By Jess Gonzalez;

December 30,  2023 – Today’s making of heroes, a societal type of worship, has much in common with how heroes were made in civilizations hundreds and even thousands of years ago.  Then, heroes were made on battle fields after training for battle since early in life.

Today heroes are mostly made on sports fields after also starting to train at an early age. While the reward for winning then and now is similar–“to the victor goes the spoils”–losing is much different.  On the battlefield losing often meant death.

Today it’s usually  adding a higher number to the “L” column next to a team or a player’s name.  Battles had no rules. Sports are dictated by rules.  Arbiters are employed to make sure the rules are followed.

However, having rules doesn’t mean they are followed.  An adage states “rules are made to be broken.”  That is precisely what is happening in sports today at all levels.  And who most feels the brunt for rules not being adhered to?  –The arbiters, aka game officials.  From players on the field or gym to fans in the stands, displeasure, disrespect, and improper discourse are not only shown for teams and players, but also toward officials…and much more openly!

Of course, not all players, coaches, parents, and fans practice bad sportsmanship. The majority  of them don’t.  Yet enough do to make sports venues unhappy places for many officials!

A complicated relationship—players, coaches, parents, fans and…game officials! 

Welcome to the world of youth and scholastic sports!  With sports at all levels being so popular and competitive,  sports officials are constantly questioned for their calls and non-calls during games.

No matter the sport, questioning can quickly turn into a dispute and to verbal abuse.  To various degrees, there are few games, if any, in which officials aren’t either berated, called names, have their appearance made fun of (or worse), cursed, and even threatened with bodily harm.

In some games all those things happen.  Their integrity is questioned when they’re accused of being biased even though, as they tell it,  “We don’ have a horse in the race; we don’t care who wins or who loses a game.”

It has gotten so bad that most games aren’t lost anymore; they are stolen by the officials!  Need proof?  Ask the losing team or individual to tell you why they lost their game.  Unfortunately, disgruntled players, coaches, parents, or fans  don’t realize all the disputing and complaining can spoil a game for people around them.

“Over the years, the abuse of sports officials has doubled or even tripled,” states Doug Kessler who provides officials for a league of elementary and middle schools located in Fresno, Kings, and Tulare counties.  “Since COVID, sportsmanship has been just horrid.”

The person in the “ref” uniform was once respected for his or her game expertise, integrity, and unbiased judgment.  Now that same uniform makes officials targets of disgruntled characters. Think of the following.

Because at times officials are confronted after games by disgruntled fans, managers of officials’ associations instruct  their members to walk out of the field or gym together at game’s end…for self-protection.

Seeing the play

Regardless of the sport, when a foul, a violation or a penalty is called, officials usually have the best vantage point on a play.  Being on the field, or on the court, they’re up close to the action taking place.

For their part, people disputing a call are usually seated away from the field or court.  The distance can make it hard to get a good look at plays.  The vantage point of the different fans also makes it impossible for everyone to see a play in the same manner!

Officiating is not easy. Officials must know the rules and the nuances of the game better than the guy sitting next us watching the game.  But, from time-to-time officials do miss plays.  After all, officials are human and thus fallible—not perfect!  The speed of a game and bodies moving around often block officials out.  Everyone makes mistakes due to inexact perceptions.  

Calling it by the book

Talk to any official and he or she will tell you they always try to do the best they can. Calling the perfect game, in which no controversy occurs, is always a goal.  However,  officials say one of the main reasons for problems–especially at the lower levels of play—is that often players, parents, fans, and, in some cases, even coaches, don’t know the rules very well.

“Many only know the basic rules, so when we call a foul or violation based on something not well-known that is in the rule book, they get upset,” informs Michael Garcia, a two-year official.

Jeff Vivian, a 20-year official and game assigner for an officials’ association in the Fresno-Clovis area,  feels a major part of the problem is that the playing field or court is an extension of what happens in the classroom.

“If students are given 2 to 3 chances to get somethings right in the classroom, then as players they feel they can do the same thing in a game and that’s not the case.  We follow rules written in black and white that are specific on how we are to officiate the game.  There’s no gray area. If all coaches would embrace the rules, that would really help.”

Jeff adds that parents, being parents, are protective of their children everywhere—which is very understandable.  However, in sports play there is bound to be bumping and physical contact because, to some extent, it is inherent of sports.  Officials make calls to prevent players from getting hurt.  But seeing their child get hit can get parents upset.  So, they blame the officials.

A game without officials

Due to the negativity they’ve experienced during games, more officials than ever are putting their uniforms away permanently.  Some associations report a decrease of  15-25% in their numbers of officials in the last five years.  Others report a decrease as high as 40%!

Unfortunately, due in large part to what’s going on, some potential officials are opting not to put on the uniform.  Not everyone sees things that way.  Jason Tang, a first-year official in football and basketball shared, “Yea, I heard lots of yelling during games.  I also saw that many coaches, parents, and fans don’t know the rules very well. But my overall experience was positive.”

He’d like to see more training be available for new officials and gas money to travel to games. “Whistle On The Play – officials cry foul” will continue in our next CR issue.