Sports Officials: Who They Are and Why They Officiate
By Referee Magazine on September 08, 2022
There’s a saying in the officiating industry: Without sports officials, it’s just recess.
To us, that phrase reflects the important role officials play in athletics. Sure, you can get two teams together without officials, but it’s at best a scrimmage. If you’re going to seriously compete, you need an arbiter to ensure adherence to the rules and to render impartial judgments about the playing action.
Officials take that role very seriously. That’s because this is not an avocation where you can merely pick up a whistle, toss on plate gear or grab a penalty flag and expect to have much success. In fact, without a great deal of preparation, you’re likely to crash and burn.
Sports officiating requires hard work and dedication long before stepping on the field or court. There’s needed study and mastery of the rules, development of an understanding of the philosophy behind those rules so they can properly be applied, the full understanding of the mechanics so you’re in the right place to view the playing action and understanding the best practices for managing the contest and its participants. This is a craft honed through experience and one that requires regular attention to stay current.
It takes time and there are expenses, too. There are registration fees to be paid, tests to be taken and association meetings to attend. There are out-of-pocket expenses for shoes, uniforms and other gear necessary for the job. There are transportation costs (not always reimbursed) to get to game sites and, often, meals away from home on those busy game nights. Sometimes, officials use days off from their day jobs to officiate.
Who Are We?
The NASO National Officiating Survey (which can be found at naso.org/survey), which garnered an incredible 17,487 responses from sports officials, yielded some deeper insights into the makeup of sports officials.
We’re older, with an average age of 53.3 years. We’re mostly male – roughly 93 percent – although more women are entering officiating every year. We tend to be well-educated: Of those who provided information, nearly two percent have attained their doctorate; roughly three percent have attained a professional degree, such as law or medicine; 19 percent a master’s degree; another eight percent have done post-graduate study; 24 percent have their bachelor’s degree; roughly eight percent have an associate degree. Roughly 12,700 of those surveyed currently officiate high school athletics.
Why We Do This?
This is not an easy avocation. We’ve already mentioned the time and effort needed to acquire the necessary rules and mechanics knowledge. And this is a craft honed through experience. Yet we’re expected by participants and spectators to be perfect from day one – and to get better from there.
There’s a certain amount of criticism that comes with the job. We know we’re going to get booed, even when we get it right. Half of those in attendance will disagree with a call on a close play. That goes with the territory.
So why do we put ourselves through the proverbial ringer to step on the fields and courts under incredible pressure to be perfect, which, as humans, is impossible?
It’s because there’s nothing quite like the challenge of officiating and the opportunity to remain directly involved in the sports we love.
Why did we start officiating and why do we continue in this avocation? The top reason identified in the National Officiating Survey: for the love of the game. Other top answers in ranked order were to stay fit, to challenge myself, to be part of a competitive sport, to have a hobby and friendships within officiating.
As a result of officiating, in other areas of our life, we feel we are better communicators, leaders, more physically fit and healthier.
We were drawn into officiating for a love of the game, but the money was – and is – an important factor for many. At the high school level, only about 21 percent of officials said they were paid what they were worth; 14 percent were underpaid and dissatisfied; 64 percent were underpaid but accepted there are budgetary constraints at the level they work. Less than one percent felt they were overpaid.
At the same time, the personal costs of officiating – from gear and uniforms to travel and training – add up: nearly 26 percent of high school officials say their personal costs for officiating are too much.
But despite the costs and challenges, many noted the enjoyment and fun of officiating were a key reason they’re doing this. However, we are concerned about what we’re seeing that’s making this avocation less fun. We’re worried about trends in sportsmanship: 57 percent said it was getting worse; 27 percent said there had been no change; only 16 percent reported it had gotten better. And 87 percent reported suffering verbal abuse in their officiating roles; and 47 percent said they felt unsafe or feared for their safety due to administrator, player, coach or spectator behavior.
Referee and the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) emerged in 1976 and 1980, respectively, because of concerns that sports officials weren’t being heard or getting the respect they deserved for the commitment they made to sports. Nearly 26,000 sports officials are members of NASO, which advocates for officials and provides members the best insurance protection in the officiating world. Members also receive Referee magazine. Uniquely written by sports officials for sports officials, Referee covers the officiating industry and explores the rules, mechanics and philosophy of officiating – important educational material for officials seeking to improve their craft.
Ultimately, we can prepare all we want, but we’re human. We’re not going to get every call right. That doesn’t happen with sports officials at the professional level where they often have years of experience and the best ongoing training in the industry. We’re going to have off nights, misses and mental mistakes. But we really do want to do our best to give the participants the best-called game or match possible. How we’re treated in those moments where we’re struggling can contribute to whether we stick around for the long haul.
How to Support Officials
There are things schools and administrators can do to support the work done by high school sports officials:
• Ensure adequate on-site security for officials. At the very least, administrators should identify themselves as someone the officials can approach to handle unruly spectators or address other issues. Officials should never be the ones dealing with troublesome spectators – that’s the responsibility of game management.
• Ensure adequate and safe locker-room facilities. We need a place where we can get away from players, coaches and spectators and talk among ourselves, partly to review the game and identify things we can improve upon. When we’re stuck in a coach’s office and they’re constantly going in and out, that’s not ideal. And if you really want to show your appreciation of officials, some water or sports drinks and nutrition bars are a nice touch.
• Don’t ask us to set aside rules, especially safety rules. Since we’re independent contractors, if something happens – say we’ve rushed back to play after a lightning delay, someone is hit by lightning and sues – we’ve increased our personal liability for failing to enforce the rules or official guidelines.
• While money isn’t always the primary reason we do this, it is important to many officials. Officiating is a part-time job bringing in money that’s used to pay household bills, college tuition, vacations and unexpected expenses. Money may not be the only motivator for officials, but when we’re encountering the challenges that come with officiating, it helps us endure. Keep that in mind when looking at budgets and planning for the future. Also, prompt payment of game fees is always appreciated.
It’s Not for Everyone
Here’s the reality: Officiating sports isn’t easy and it’s not for everybody. Keeping up your rules book knowledge requires constant study. It’s impossible to always have a perfect look at the playing action. The judgments can be extremely challenging. The stakes and the scrutiny can be very high. And no matter how well you perform, you’re likely to face criticism for calls. And in today’s world, that might mean you’re plastered all over social media. Ouch.
We know the risks, yet we step out on the fields and courts at high schools across the country all year long. There’s something very rewarding about trying to meet that challenge – to call the perfect game.
And we do this in service of the games and their participants – for the student-athletes. Because if we weren’t there, it’d just be recess.