“Nice call, ref”: High school referee ranks shrink amid abuse by fans, low pay
Published: 02-03-2024 11:00 AM
Modified: 02-08-2024 8:39 PM
A couple weeks ago, I sat inside Smith Academy’s Sherry Webb Gymnasium in Hatfield to cover a girls basketball game between the Falcons and Duggan Academy of Springfield. As the game progressed, the displeasure from supporters only grew louder — and it was directed at two people in particular.
The only ones in the gymnasium who donned black-and-white striped jerseys complemented with black pants and shoes: the officials.
Complaints from the crowd became so loud when the place was so quiet it was uncomfortable. The primary focus turned to what was being said in the bleachers, and the actual game that people paid to watch became secondary. Sure enough, one of the refs finally had enough. He ejected a spectator before the game even reached halftime — and notified the rest of the crowd that they’d be next if they kept it up.
Unfortunately, that situation wasn’t limited to just Hatfield for a mid-January regular season game. It’s happening everywhere across western Massachusetts, and I’ve seen it at what feels like every game I’ve covered this winter.
So what’s the correlation here? Dwindling referee numbers every year.
“They have day jobs,” Pioneer Valley Regional boys head coach Scott Thayer, who’s been coaching for 34 years, said of local officials. “You’re going to your day job, maybe go home to eat and say hi to your family quick, and then you’re out the door. You got a game at Wahconah tonight, tomorrow night you’re in South Hadley, and the next night you’re at Pioneer. Think of the wear and tear on you physically, and how that effects you mentally. And then you’re listening to all this rhetoric from parents throughout every game. It’s brutal.”
It’s not rocket science as to why the number of officials on the board who live in both Franklin and Hampshire County has decreased nearly 40% — from over 125 refs to around 80 — since 2008. The COVID-19 pandemic helped knock the numbers down a bit, but there’s more to it than that.
Aside from the clear and obvious verbal abuse officials fall victim to on a nightly basis, the rather low pay doesn’t seem to offer much of a financial incentive to those interested in joining the Western Mass. Board of Basketball Officials. Given the 8.7% Consumer Price Index (CPI) increase in 2022, the varsity game fee should have increased from $93 to $101. It instead only raised to $95.
Furthermore, Tom Stagliano, the president of the Eastern Massachusetts Interscholastic Soccer Officials Association, noted that if the varsity game fee continued to match with the CPI since 1970, that fee would now be $133. Since the fees have nowhere near matched inflation, and the economy has operated properly for nearly two decades, some referees decided it just wasn’t worth the time and commitment — giving them more reason to focus on their full-time jobs.
Most officials, many of them over 50 years old, surely don’t do it for the money.
“Many referees adopt or continue the activity because it enables good exercise, friendly camaraderie among colleagues and useful social or community service,” said Artie Burke, a longtime official of many sports across western Mass., including basketball.
Sure, the easy — and, quite frankly, lazy — counterargument I’m sure fans will make is that these officials went through training, and they are, no matter the quantity, getting paid to do it — so they should be held to some standard. And that’s completely fair to say.
The only problem is, because of the constant disrespect and vulgarity from spectators, there are fewer and fewer aspiring officials. This, in turn, means most officials are doing nearly one game every night throughout the week.
“You’re having all these games, every night, girls and boys,” Thayer said. “These guys, some of them, have already done 40, 50 games this year. They’re gonna end up doing over 100 games, and you just think of the physical toll that takes.”
“They’re gonna have to do something to try to recruit and get other people involved that wanna do it, but it’s kind of a thankless job,” multi-time state champion and current Northampton girls head coach Perry Messer added. “Who wants to get yelled at by coaches like me all night long and angry parents in the crowd?”
If you’re not following along, let’s break down the process in a simpler way: For plenty of reasons (insufficient funds, mistreatment, age, etc.), the number of officials is declining. So, inexperienced refs who may only be used to working middle school games or suburban youth games are forced up the ladder on days when there are an abundance of games scheduled. Then, once again, when these referees don’t meet the unrealistically high standard to which some fans and parents hold them to, they aren’t slow to let them hear about it. The cycle then repeats.
I’m sure that doesn’t trigger a tsunami of applicants to flood the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials’ inbox.
“If we don’t have officials, there is no sporting event. If we’re hard on them, we’re not enticing them to get involved in refereeing,” Thayer said.
Now, I’m not advocating for fans to be completely silent whatsoever. They are what creates entertaining environments. However, referees are human, and it’s human nature to be wrong. Calls are going to be missed or incorrectly assessed throughout the course of a game, and it’s totally acceptable to disagree — but do so with non-degrading language. There really is no reason to get that mad over a human making a mistake when every single person does so every day.
“It’s normal for kids to have a bad day or bad game and make mistakes. Why isn’t that normal for an official, who also has stuff going on in their personal life?” Thayer inquired. “It’s human nature to have things affect you.”
And, believe it or not, it’s actually against the law to argue flamboyantly — and could even result in a fine.
Listed as part of Section 36A, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Legislature states: “Whoever, having arrived at the age of sixteen years, directs any profane, obscene or impure language or slanderous statement at a participant or an official in a sporting event, shall be punished by a fine of not more than fifty dollars.”
That brings me to my final — and most important — point. If you truly think that the officials in western Massachusetts are determining the outcomes of games based on the calls they do or do not make, you are dead wrong. At the end of the day, the more talented team that plays better on that day will emerge victorious with or without the luck of the whistle.
Referees don’t decide who wins, the players and coaches do.
“One of the things, as I’m getting older, I’m trying to do a better job of just coaching my team,” Messer said. “There’s only so many things you can control. If we play our best, we should win regardless of the officiating.”
Garrett Cote can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org