MIDVALE — The worst experiences veteran basketball official Teresa Turner has endured during her 23-year career came in games for the sport’s youngest players.
“Youth basketball is for sure the worst,” said the 42-year-old businesswoman who spends most of her time officiating women’s college and men’s high school games. “Dads are yelling terrible things. I’ve had mothers throw garbage cans. I had to have a police escort for a third-grade boys basketball game because a dad threatened to beat the referees with a two-by-four.”
The list of embarrassingly bad behavior that most sports officials have witnessed or been subject to is long and sordid. Additionally, the job is tougher (and more time-consuming) than one might suspect, and the pay is not as good as it should be. There are "good-old-boy" political systems that make advancement difficult as well.
So why would anyone want to put on the stripes and step on the court?
That question is getting tougher to answer, and not just in Utah. The recruitment and retention of qualified officials has long been a concern for high schools nationwide. But myriad issues have combined to create a crisis without a simple solution.
“We’re losing about 85 to 100 officials per year,” said Jeff Cluff, the Utah High School Activities Association’s supervisor of officials since 2014. “We believe it has to do with three major factors. The first one being, this isn’t for me. I tried this out, it’s not what it is cracked up to be, and we see a lot of turnover at the sub-varsity level.”
The second factor is how officials are treated by coaches and fans, which outweighs any positives, including pay.
“They say, ‘I like what I’m doing; I like the exercise, but I just don’t have the personality to handle being an official,’” Cluff said. “Third, there is a frustration with politics in officiating. And there are quite a few of those. They get tired of being junior varsity or sub-varsity for a number of years, sometimes six, seven, eight, nine years before they get their first varsity game.”
Cluff and the UHSAA are trying to address each of those issues in both recruitment and retention of officials. In some cases, that’s easier than others.
In the 2010-11 school year, the UHSAA registered 2,332 officials in basketball, football, volleyball, soccer, basketball, wrestling and softball. This year, they’ve registered 1,905 officials. The largest drops occurred in softball, which fell from 165 to 69; baseball, which dropped from 217 to 94; and soccer, which fell from 241 to 176.
Interestingly, all of those sports have start times of 3:30 or 4 p.m., an issue multiple officials raised as a barrier to young, aspiring officials.
“The start times are a big issue,” said Mark Sackett, who has officiated multiple sports, including soccer, since 1984. “Most of these younger officials, which we need, are just starting out in careers, and they can’t leave work at 2:30 or 3 multiple times in a season.”
As soccer’s popularity grows, the number of high school officials declines, especially in the fall when many of the soccer officials opt to work sub-varsity football games. That’s led to an unfortunate situation in girls soccer.
Last fall, the UHSAA was forced to reschedule about 20 girls soccer games and 15 to 20 sub-varsity football games because it couldn’t find enough officials capable of working 3:30 p.m. games.
“We like to have three people work varsity games,” Sackett said. “But because of the shortage, most of the women’s games I worked this fall were two-person (crews). We just didn’t have the people to have three at each game.”
Logistics and pay, however, are not the only, or even the most problematic aspect of the issue.
Most people who start officiating do so at the recreation or youth level. Unfortunately, that is also where one finds the most abhorrent behavior.
“We get these young kids out there doing youth soccer games, and they’re learning the game,” Sackett said. “They don’t know the game. The coaches, for the most part, don’t know the game, and then the fans and parents are terrible. We have these young kids out there getting yelled at and they say, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”
Cluff said the combination of inexperienced officials, athletes still developing basic skills, and coaches and parents whose unrealistic expectations sometimes translate into shockingly bad or abusive behavior is toxic for the development of new officials.
“The experience of a younger, more vulnerable official in that environment can lead them away from (the job),” Cluff said. “That’s when the most criticism happens.”
Cluff said the UHSAA has added a component to its sportsmanship program that is aimed at teaching coaches that sub-varsity competition isn’t just about player development. It’s also the way young officials learn how to do their jobs.
The goal is to change the expectation and therefore the atmosphere, which benefits everyone participating, including the officials.
“You have grown men chasing these people out of gyms,” Cluff said of how some fans handle dissatisfaction with officials. “It happens every day. Is it OK for them to be upset about bad calls? In my opinion, yes. There is a certain level of expectation, and we have to try and meet the standard of perfection that’s expected. So it’s OK for people to be upset when officials make mistakes. It’s not OK for people to mistreat them, especially in the sub-varsity ranks.”
Turner started officiating basketball in college. It was a fun, flexible job that helped her build a critical network of friends.
“I think a lot of people sign up and don’t realize how much work it is to really be good at it,” she said of the time officials spend on professional development. “It depends on what you want to do or where you want to go, but if you don’t improve at some point, you’re just getting yelled at all the time, and it’s really not that fun.”
Turner had the unique experience of being one of the first women to work boys high school games in Utah. She said there was surprising resistance to the move, and there are still some coaches who make it clear they don’t want women working their boys' games.
Turner, who also works women’s college games, said she decided to give coaches a warning if they offered gender-related insults. “I’d tell them, ‘That’s your one girl cheap shot that you get,’” she said. “ 'Now we’re moving on. The next one is a technical.’”
Most successful officials don’t mind passionate exchanges with coaches.
“Coaches are arguing plays and fighting for their kids,” Turner said. “Parents are just heaving insults.”
Turner said that like most officials, she doesn’t hear a lot of what fans scream at her. But every once in a while, especially after she moved to officiating boys high school basketball, the insults shocked her.
“I wouldn’t even repeat them,” she said. “And you have kids hearing these things. We have to act like we don’t hear it, but if it reaches the line of threats, we tell administrators.”
The banter with coaches, however, is one of the aspects of the job she’s found most rewarding.
“You’ve got all of these people screaming at you, and you really learn a lot about yourself as a person,” she said. “I know I’ve changed as a person tremendously. There’s nights you just go home and cry, like what am I doing? Why am I doing this? But then you work on how you could handle situations better, and learning how to deal with people is a part of the challenge of the job I really enjoy. If you stick with it, you can learn a lot about yourself.”
Courtney Littledike, 46, became an official at 35 because he was in charge of his LDS ward’s basketball program and couldn’t find enough officials.
“Had I known what I know now, I would have started when I was 25,” he said. “I love it because it’s a challenge. … There is that game within the game that I had no idea about. It’s really fun for me.”
Littledike said it’s the relationships with coaches and other officials that keeps him working through the frustrations of poor sportsmanship or concerns about safety.
“You don’t do this for the money,” he said, noting he makes $60 to officiate a high school boys game. “You’re not going to take that kind of abuse for $60.”
Officiating provides a connection to the game for adults whose playing days have long since passed. But the demands of the job, especially at the youth and prep level, are unique, and Cluff said the UHSAA is working with individual associations to find ways to better mentor young officials.
Professional development addresses some of that, but evolving how officials are evaluated is another part of the equation.
“Every one of us thinks we’re better than we are, and I’d put myself in that category,” Cluff said. “There is a fine line between complete arrogance and complete confidence.”
The UHSAA offers a summer clinic and works constantly with individual officiating associations to find ways to develop skills that will lead to more competent and confident officials.
Cluff said they’ve already taken steps to address the politics that may have kept officials languishing in the sub-varsity ranks far too long.
The reality is that the shortage is a multifaceted problem requiring commitment and creativity from every group served by youth and high school sports.
The danger in ignoring any part of it is that it not only threatens to diminish the experience teens have in prep athletics, but it could threaten the UHSAA’s ability to even offer certain sports. They may not be anybody’s favorite aspect of the game, but there is no doubt the games can’t be played without officials.
“Utah is one of the fastest-growing states, with over 3 million people now living here,” Cluff said. “That’s evident by the number of schools we have coming on board, and we have to find a way to meet those demands."