Verbal abuse, rules changes, low pay make it harder to recruit and retain referees for school sports in Kentucky; at the same time, number of students participating has grown considerably

News Enterprise, Elizabethtown, Aug. 1, 2017

Officially a problem
Verbal abuse from parents, coaches causing referee shortage


Believe it or not, officials are not the enemy.

They aren’t Joker, Thanos or Darkseid.

Villains want to be part of the story. They want mayhem and destruction. They like when people are not happy with them.

They love conflict.

Officials are not that way.

They want to walk in, do their jobs and walk out.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of referees are not confrontational.

Unlike Thanos, officials do not have a Deviants gene.

Darkseid’s goal is to eliminate all free will and conquer the universe.

Referees and umpires just want to officiate kids playing a game.

“I always tried to communicate with them,” said Meade County Athlete Director Todd Clanton, who recently stepped down as the baseball coach. “I always tried to make sure it was more questions from me and not coming at them.

“Nobody wants someone coming at them and telling the how to do their job. There is a right way and a wrong way.”

The wrong way, of course, you can hear from the stands on a consistent basis.

“Officials, within the playing rules, may ask the home game management to have a disruptive/unsportsmanlike like fan removed from the facility,” KHSAA Associate Commissioner Butch Cope said. “We have had instances where a fan has been banned from school property by a school.”

That’s unfortunate.

It’s the exception more than the rule, but unruly fans play a part in high school sporting events.

“This is high school sports,” Elizabethtown boys’ basketball coach James Haire said. “I really take personal offense when that happens, even when it’s our fans. You have grown men pretending like they are charging the floor after a boy.

“I’m really surprised by some of the things that have gone on, that I have seen. It’s boys and girls playing sports.”

While Darkseid has superhuman strength, speed, durability and longevity, officials do not.

They are human.

“There was no tolerance for our kids talking to umpires at all,” Clanton said, “especially on called third strikes and our kids really responded to it.

“Kids feed off the way we act. If we get belligerent with an umpire, they will take that attitude as well.”

The acts of belligerence are what hamper high school state organizations from replenishing those calling games.

“I think it is becoming harder,” Cope said about the yearly recruitment of officials and umpires. “Feedback we have received is that an official signs up, goes through the training and then has to deal with unsporting acts by players, coaches, fans and even in rare instances, administrators. Pay is mentioned, but the overwhelming feedback is the actions of others.”

Kevin Claycomb has umpired baseball for 23 years and football and basketball for 14. He also umpires college baseball. He said he has seen two major changes during those years.

“One is the quality of play,” Claycomb admitted. “Two is the fans say whatever they want to say. They feel like they paid their five dollars and they can talk to you like a dog. But I think that’s society as a whole.”

Claycomb admitted he does not like throwing fans out of games.

“I really don’t want to do that,” he remarked. “That’s a bad experience for them and for you.”

High school officials and umpires are not paid professionals when they receive that check.

Quite the contrary.

It supplements their income as a way to take a family vacation during the summer, pay some bills or have some spending money available.

Joker is an expert chemist and a mastermind. He relies on those things to disrupt as many lives as possible. He doesn’t want peace and tranquility.

Referees do.

“That’s the best, when they don’t know you’re there,” Claycomb said. “It’s a good sign when they don’t remember you were there two weeks ago for a game. That means there were no issues.”

Claycomb also umpires college baseball.

“Other guys kept hounding me to do them,” he said of becoming a football and basketball ref. “I played football in high school and really enjoyed that and also enjoyed playing basketball. I started officiating basketball to stay in shape during the winter months and as I got better I thought, ‘Shoot, I kind of like this’ and it turned into more fun.

“Before I started to officiate football games I would go to games on Friday night just to watch. I figured if I was going to do that, I might as well go call them.”

There were 5,932 officials in the 2010-11 season. That number increased by 2.36 percent to 6,072 in 2015-16 (not counting competitive cheer and field hockey, which did not exist in 2010-11).

“The majority of officials are there to keep the game playing smoothly, to keep everybody within the rules,” Central Hardin football coach Tim Mattingly said. “They are open to talk to you and are willing to listen. Coaches sometimes lose their minds on Friday nights — and I’m guilty of that myself — because we all put so much into those games.

“Officiating is a tough job. I don’t think I could do it myself, honestly.”

Participation in 12 sports in Kentucky (baseball, basketball, cross country, football, golf, soccer, softball, tennis, track and field, volleyball and wrestling) increased from 84,048 (48,789 boys and 35,259 girls) in 2010-11 to 90,496 (52,542 and 37,954) in 2015-16.

Those numbers were 84,720 (48,925 and 35,795) in 2005-06 and 79,229 (47,390 and 31,839) in 2000-01.

That is a 19.2 percent increase in girls participation from 2000-01 to 2015-16, and just under an 11 percent increase for boys.

There were 3,960,932 high school athletes nationally in 1971, with a mere 294,015 girls.

That low number was 2.87 times higher the next year as 817,073 girls participated in 1972-73.

“I think the biggest change I’ve seen (in 28 years in the game) are the rules are constantly being updated and are constantly being changed for safety purposes,” Mattingly said. “It’s all positive, but it makes their jobs harder. Coaches like to think we know all the rules. I try to study them and keep up on changes. We do clinics online every year to go over rules changes.

“Those guys know it a lot better than we will ever know — and coaches have a hard time admitting that. You can’t argue with rules changes in making the game safer. That’s what we’re all about. But, to constantly go through rules changes every year, that’s hard. Hat’s off to them.”

The biggest thing for the KHSAA is recruitment in order to sustain quality and quantity.

The numbers have been all over the place when it comes to officials throughout the state.

In the last seven years, wrestling has had as many as 114 (2011-12) and as few as 77 (last season). Basketball had 1,903 in 2012-13 and 1,855 last season.

Baseball had 948 umpires in 2013 and it has steadily declined to 859 last spring.

“I wish more would stay,” Claycomb said. “I think when young kids get into it, it doesn’t pay as much as they thought. They can go to the Sports Park on the weekend and officiate eight games and do well.”

One of the sports that concerns people the most is soccer because of the constant verbal abuse and physicality of the sport.

It also had its lowest number of officials last season (554) after having 605 in 2012-13.

The KHSAA hosted Officiate Kentucky Day on Saturday in Louisville for the first time and had more than 650 officials register.

“This will hopefully help celebrate officiating and let them hear from national officials on a variety of topics,” Cope said.

Football lost 31 officials from 2011-12 to 2012-13 (1,013 to 982), but gained 35 officials (997 to 1,032) from 2012-13 to 1013-14. The sport totaled 1,016 last season.

“I’ve never really talked to officials on why they have gotten out of the game,” Mattingly said. “But some have gotten up in years and it’s hard to keep up with the game. Eventually I’ll have to retire for the same reason.

“I can only imagine some of the abuse from fans and coaches these guys have taken and some of the stuff they have had to put up with. They have to have a pretty thick skin and have to turn a deaf ear.”

Pay is something that comes up regularly when talking to officials.

“I don’t get paid enough for this abuse” is something heard regularly in any sport when it comes to fan abuse.

From the KHSAA (regular season):

Baseball: $46 first contest for a two-person crew, $41 each additional contest. If additional officials are assigned, the minimum fee may be reduced by $5 each. The total amount paid to baseball umpires in a given local policy board area shall be no greater than $10 more (per contest) than the amount paid to fast pitch umpires.

Basketball: $45 per contest — three-person crew. If due to an emergency approved by the KHSAA, a crew of two officials is used, the fee shall be $55 per official.

Field hockey: $56.

Football: $65 (five-person crew); $60 (seven-person crew).

Soccer: $50 per contest — three-person crew. If due to an emergency approved by the KHSAA, a crew of two officials is used, the fee shall be $75 per contest.

Softball: $41 first contest for a two-person crew, $36 each additional contest. If additional officials are assigned, the minimum fee may be reduced by $5 per official.

Track and field (and cross country): $30 per cross country race for the meet referee, who shall be a licensed KHSAA official. $45 per division for each of two licensed KHSAA officials for a standard school day or half-day (3 hours or less) weekend track and field meet. For larger track and field meets that require longer than three hours, the fee shall be $65 per each of the two licensed officials (referee & starter).

Volleyball: $40.

Wrestling: $45 per standard dual match for one official, per match. For team-based dual meet competition (tri, quad, etc.), the fee shall be $40 per team round per official. Tournaments, $25 per mat, per official, per hour, with a minimum of $175 per official.

Those numbers increase during the postseason.

“The KHSAA Board of Control reviews licensing fees on a rotating basis,” Cope said. “Each sport is considered once ever four years. The Association sets the minimum regular season fee and establishes the fees for the postseason. Schools, through their local policy board, may add additional pay onto the regular season. The last few years the Board has not adjusted regular season fees, but rather the postseason since most times that is money not necessarily budgeted.”

There were 6,195 officials in 2015-16 and 6,158 last year.

The decline in numbers is something Cope and the KHSAA keep a close eye on.

“At some point, it (the decline) will affect the product on the court/field/mat, etc.,” he said. “I had a lady call me one day complaining about an official. In her conversation she stated that ‘they are paid professionals.’ I shared with her they are not. Most officials have a job during the day and then hurry to the court to make that 5 p.m. JV match, etc.

“I truly don’t think people realize what it takes to become an official.”

Once registered, the officials must pass tests, attend required meetings, take additional tests to work the postseason and attend advanced camps. The officials who make it to the state tournament do so based on their evaluations throughout the event — starting with district competition.

“I think you are seeing a group of people who really try to work at their craft,” Haire said. “They go to clinics and constantly ask advice from older officials on how to get better. I see them taking a lot of pride in their work.

“Like everything, there is a lot of turnover. Some very good officials are stepping out and the younger ones are trying to step up. The kids today are bigger, faster and stronger than before. But, I don’t think the modern player is as fundamentally sound. There’s a lot of shuffling of the feet and a lot of players don’t always understand what a pivot foot is.

“The officials can call something every time down the floor. Back in the day, putting your hands on someone while playing defense was accepted, and so was body checking. Now, you can’t do that. It’s not an easy sport to officiate.

“I’m the first to admit, yes, I will yell at them. But, I think I’ve gotten better through the years. All they have to say is, ‘Coach, I missed it’ and I’ll shut up. I’ll just go on with the game. But sometimes coaches have a chip on their shoulders and the officials have a chip on their shoulders. And, when that’s the case, the coaches are going to lose.”

The bottom line is it gets down to communication between the coaches and officials.

“We talk to our coaches and players about representing the community, family and high school when they have Meade County across their chest, and how they need to act accordingly,” Clanton said. “For the most part, they do a great job of that.

“But it is athletics and the heat of the moment gets to all of us — including me.”

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