High School Sports

There’s a shortage of high school referees. Some feel parents are to blame.

Ashur Athneil officiates a recent basketball game at Beyer High School in Modesto, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.
Ashur Athneil officiates a recent basketball game at Beyer High School in Modesto, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. aalfaro@modbee.com

Marcel Avila has been a high school baseball umpire and football and volleyball referee for 20 years.

The former longtime baseball coach at Hughson High said officiating is a way to stay involved in interscholastic athletics.

It’s also “familiar” for him since his dad, David, was elected to the Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame in 2010 as an official.

Avila is one of the rare officials who has been around for a while, a trend that has shifted dramatically.

Eighty percent of officials call it quits after two years, according to the National Association of Sports Officials.

Why? Seventy-five percent of officials said “adult behavior” is the primary reason.

“The CIF does a really good job of getting their message to their schools,” Avila said.

However, it often does not translate to the fans, namely parents.

That message became evident this month when the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body of high school sports in California, posted on its website a column titled “Dear Mom and Dad: Cool it.” The column was sent to news organizations by Rebecca Brutlag, media relations officer for the CIF, hoping editors would publish it.

It was co-authored by Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, and Roger Blake, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation

Their message? The abuse from the fans needs to stop or else there won’t be enough officials for games.

“Yelling, screaming and berating the officials humiliates your child, annoys those sitting around you, embarrasses your child’s school and is the primary reason California has an alarming shortage of high school officials,” Niehoff wrote.

They say there’s a greater number of officials over the age of 60 than under the age of 30. As the older officials retire, there won’t be a way to make up for the already thin numbers. Blake predicted junior varsity and freshman high school baseball and softball coaches could soon be calling balls and strikes.

Modesto’s William Franklin has been a soccer referee in the area for 16 years and has had “numerous occasions” where fans have threatened him.

“Fans have come out onto the field and threatened saying, ‘Lets go to the parking lot and we can handle it’,” Franklin said. “Two years ago, I was working a game and the cops came out because we had a coach and a parent wait for us after the game.”

Jeff Spinelli was a basketball referee for 13 years in the Southern Section until he quit this year because the environment was toxic.

“I had a coach challenge me on a court and challenge me after the game,” Spinelli said, “He told me he was going to quit coaching to beat up officials he didn’t like. I called him for a technical foul and he almost incited a riot by his actions and not one person in the entire gym said anything to him or did anything.”

Shortage of refs being felt

Brian Moore, the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section’s officials assigner for the southern part of the section, is contending with a shortage.

“In basketball, we have about 210 officials just in the south part of the section,” Moore said. “I need 240 to 250 to function properly. Eight out of 10 quit because they didn’t like the abuse they were given.”

Wrote Niehoff and Blake: “The shortage of licensed high school officials is severe enough in some areas that athletic events are being postponed or canceled — especially at the freshman and junior varsity levels.”

Games have not been canceled yet in the Sac-Joaquin Section due to a low number of officials.

Blake anticipates having lower level baseball and softball games without umpires and having the coaches officiate.

“It’s a statewide issue,” Blake said. “I truly believe we are starting to hit the crisis behavior. It’s going to limit the number of people who go out and officiate.”

SJS Assistant Commissioner Will DeBoard said the issue between parents and officials has been an “ongoing” issue.

“People get a little too caught up in the moment when they are at games,” DeBoard said.

He agreed with Moore the section does have enough officials to work, but not a lot of alternates.

Space between stands and fields eases tensions

Modesto City School District has a policy called “Victory with Honor” that promotes sportsmanship and Downey football head coach Jeremy Plaa talks with the athletes and parents about it during the season.

“It is the responsibility of every coach to instill the values of “Pursuing Victory with Honor” and communicate to student-athletes and their parents that athletic participation is a privilege, not a right,” the policy states. “To earn that privilege, student-athletes must abide by the rules and conduct themselves, on and off the field, as role models who exemplify good character.”

Plaa said it’s not student-athletes causing the problems. He doesn’t see a lot of tension between fans and officials at football games, due in large part to the separation of the field and stands. He does see it in other sports.

“I have a hard time going to basketball games,” Plaa said. “Parents can just be so brutal to the referees. I don’t know how they (officials) do it, honestly.”

Some schools give parents a code of conduct to sign before the season with expected fan behavior. Downey/Modesto Christian parent Christen Grover saw a parent get two technical fouls and ejected from a game this year.

“When we watch a game, we sit quietly because we are there to observe,” Grover said. “Parents are sucking the joy out of watching and enjoying the game and they tend to yell and not be educated on the game.”

Grover went to a baseball tournament during the summer in Cooperstown, N.Y., and there was a sign that said if you say one word to an umpire, you will be removed.

“It created such a joyful experience to watch the game,” she said.

Modesto Christian basketball coach Brice Fantazia said he can tell when he has young referees because they get rattled by the crowd and noise.

Fantazia, who played professional basketball in Europe for four years, said being a referee is a “thankless job” but he shows his appreciation.

“I try to tell them after the game, especially when they do a really good job, ‘Hey that was excellent’,” Fantazia said. “The best refereeing is when you don’t even notice the ref is out there.”

Kyle McKim, Beyer’s boys basketball coach, said referees are doing their best and they make mistakes, just like coaches and players.

“Just because there is a call that you disagree with, you don’t have to act the wrong way about it,” he said.

Freshman, JV games are worse

Blake said the issue isn’t just in one sport.

“I wish it was just one sport,” Blake said. “It’s across the board. From freshman baseball to varsity basketball and football games. The more highlighted issues we are facing are at those freshman and junior varsity games.”

Blake said because there aren’t many fans at a freshman baseball game, those fans jawing at officials stand out.

“They are getting paid $35 for a freshman baseball game,” he said. “Why would I want to do that?”

Avila said he has been officiating for so long he gets used to the parents.

“Your experience and ability level, those play a factor when you run across unruly parents,” Avila said. “I have been yelled at by parents. You do it for so long that you are conditioned to it.”

The potential for fewer officials is a cause for concern among coaches.

“What I hope doesn’t happen is they pull young officials up that aren’t ready and then it starts affecting the game,” Fantazia said. “One poorly officiated game can swing the momentum toward one team.”

Ex-athletes are sought

Several parents said former athletes should be pursued as officials because they have expertise in the sport. One parent said local colleges should offer umpire or referee classes.

“A lot of wrestling referees I have talked to, they have wrestled in the past,” Hilmar parent Mike Van Guilder said. “They know the ins and outs.”

Central Catholic parent Angela Durossette’s son, Dalton, was ejected in the Div. II title football game, a call by a referee that is still being talked about.

Durossette said parents have expectations of what a varsity official should know and do.

“They should know the rules and have some tolerance,” Durossette said. “I get they are human and we are all human but the expectation in a game like that is communication between those referees would be better.”

She also said “at times” parents forget referees make mistakes.

Then again, not all interaction between referees and parents is negative.

Van Guilder, who has a son on the Hilmar football team, said even though mistakes are made by referees and calls are missed, he joked with the refs when they came to the snack bar this year.

“As a fan sitting in the stands, we aren’t going to be seeing what they see,” Van Guilder said.

The CIF also has been discussing with section officials about going to the yellow card-red card soccer approach with fans. The first warning would elicit a yellow card warning, with a second infraction a red card and ejection from the game.

Having games with no fans in attendance has not been discussed.

“We hope it never gets to that point,” Blake said.

In the end, referees are human and parents need to take a step back.

“That’s somebody’s father, mother, son, daughter,” said Franklin, the soccer referee. “If that would be yours, how would you feel with somebody screaming and threatening them.”

If you are interested in becoming an official, go to highschoolofficials.com or ncoa.arbitersports.com/front/107475/Site

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Julian A. Lopez has been covering local sports for The Modesto Bee since August 2018. He graduated from Arizona State in 2016 with a BA in Journalism.