Abusing the Referee

Just as sports are expanding, teams are facing one problem around which there seems to be no end run—a growing shortage of referees to officiate at games, especially in high school sports. It's not that new blood isn't coming onto the field. The problem is that many refs last only a year or two.

Abusive behavior by players and their parents, as well as by fans—and even coaches—in response to calls they don't like is driving some officials away for good. Lower level, poorly paid officials are especially quick to depart. "You're largely doing it for psychic income and love of the game," says Barry Mano, president of the National Organization of Sports Officials, based in Wisconsin. It's not the booing, but the threats, he says. Players and parents scream at the referees, Mano contends, saying they're "going to wait outside the arena" to redress the call.

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A survey of sports officials revealed that bad sportsmanship is the primary reason new referees—especially women—get out fast.

Mary Struckhoff, national basketball rules editor for the National Federation of State High School Associations and herself a referee of women's college basketball, has been called the C-word more times than she can count. Once she was grabbed from behind, outside the arena—after a game played by seventh grade boys. Other referees she knows have needed state troopers to escort them to the highway after a game.

Struckhoff cites the entitlement attitude in the culture: "Everyone deserves everything, and if I don't get what I want, the problem is those in charge," she says. Especially among fans, she says, the attitude is, "I pay my $5, I can rip you a new one."

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