Berating refs is sending signals

By David Mullen

The videos are all over the internet showing an increased number of coaches, parents and fans yelling at referees and umpires in youth and amateur athletics. This phenomenon is a relatively new — but increasing — sidebar to games meant to promote competition and team building while remaining fun.

It is causing a serious issue in retaining and recruiting officials, said Michael Fitch, executive director of the Texas Association of Sports Officials (TASO), a 15,000 member organization of junior/middle and high school sports officials based in Richardson. “Texas is unique where we are only one of two states [Washington is the other] where the officiating organization and the organization that controls the activities are totally separate. If you think about it, [without separation] that causes an obvious conflict of interest.”

TASO focuses primarily on providing quality officials for middle and high school games. Having played the game is a plus, but not an absolute requirement. The organization has produced a number of officials who have gone into the major college and professional ranks. Pay rates vary by sport. Sub-varsity officials can make $35 to $70 per game, while varsity football officials make around $80, although they can benefit from a percentage of the gate receipts.

While Fitch acknowledges that the speed of the games and the physicality of the players have increased, today’s officials are faced with a new obstacle. “The saddest part is that the aggression of the fans, coaches and sometimes players toward officials has gotten worse, which may be a reflection of our society. I don’t know. I am not a sociologist.

“But the lack of respect and the outright confrontation that we have to put up with today is getting increasingly out of hand,” Fitch said. In the TASO training programs, they advise would-be officials to ignore it as much as you can. “We don’t want our officials confronting the fans themselves,” Fitch said.   

“But if one steps over the line, you find a game administrator, head coach or security and let them know. We tell them to remember that they are not criticizing you as a person, but you as an official.” Amateur referees are now subject to threats and personal attacks, something rarely heard of in previous generations. 

Fitch’s interest in officiating began at an early age. “My mother was a teacher and used to take me to a lot of football games when I was very young, and I don’t know why, but watching the officials control the game and throw the flags, I thought, was pretty cool. I am not a control freak by any means.” 

He started umpiring little league games when he was in high school. At Texas Tech, he began officiating in the intramural department to make a little extra money. He stepped into high school football officiating while still in college and fell in love with it. While building a career in insurance and later computer graphics, he had time to continue officiating on the field for 40 years.

“So many parents are reliving or recreating their youth sports career through their kid,” Fitch said. “They think that if their kid gets a foul or a called third strike, it will keep them from getting a college scholarship or being selected in the draft, and that is just silly.

“Sports, especially team sports, when done properly should be an extension of the classroom. You learn things in athletics that you don’t learn in the classroom like teamwork and having a common goal. A very small percentage of kids makes it to a major college, and an even smaller percentage makes it into the pros. But the skills a young man or young woman can learn while participating in high school athletics will pay off later in life.”

Many activity organizations hold coaches accountable for actions on the field against officials. But youth sports matches, often overseen by volunteers, has no such governing body.

In 2010, Fitch took over as executive director of TASO while the organization was engaged in a lawsuit with the University Interscholastic League, better known as the UIL. “With my experience, I felt like this was something I could do,” Fitch said. “My wife jokes that every job I have ever had led me to this. As an insurance adjuster, I was always dealing with people that had problems with either a car wreck, a fire in their house or whatever. Then I moved into administration and knew how to organize and manage people. And I learned people skills in sales.”

About 20 percent of officials stay on the job past three years. TASO conducts surveys on why officials don’t return. Many times, leaving is caused by a change in family or job situation. “That we can’t control,” Fitch said. “The next biggest reason officials leave is the abuse from fans, players and coaches. And that we can control.” 

TASO has begun initiatives like START (Students Today and Referees Tomorrow) that asks high school coaches to identify graduating seniors that are potential referees. They also partner with “Battlefields to Ballfields,” which recruits active and retired military personnel and helps them obtain reimbursements in expenses like equipment associated with officiating.    

Fitch hopes that by attracting new officials and having them adjust to the growing throng of belligerent and unappreciative fans and participants, another problem he has faced in his career will be resolved.