Football without refs?

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)--"It isn't a battle to save high school football -- at least not yet," the Abilene Reporter-News in Texas reported recently. "But if the declining number of high school football game officials continues at its present pace, it may soon reach that point."

It is not only Texas youth sports, or football, that is feeling the pinch due to a lack of referees. According to a variety of reports from across America, fewer and fewer men and women are willing to oversee games.

A 2001 study conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials provides insight into the growing dearth of game officials for youth sports. The survey concluded that poor sportsmanship was a leading cause for most referee departures.

A closer look at the NASO study reveals that negative sportsmanship exhibited by coaches, players and fans was the major influence on an official's decision not to return to the playing field.

The study did not focus on professional officials. It gave its attention to those that enforce the rules at high school games, and below. Those that dedicate themselves to officiating youth sports are not doing it for the money. Many local umpires and referees provide their services for free. Those that are paid make very little money.

"Let's face it. Umpiring is not an easy or happy way to make a living," observed baseball broadcaster and former major league catcher Bob Uecker. "In the abuse they suffer, and the pay they get for it, you see an imbalance that can only be explained by their need to stay close to a game they can't resist."

Game officials at the youth level are involved because they enjoy the game and genuinely care for the kids. To suggest any other motive, like trying to impact the outcome of a game, is just plain foolish. This was a reality that even legendary major league player and manager Leo Durocher understood.

"I've never questioned the integrity of an umpire," he said. "Their eyesight, yes."

Do officials make mistakes? Yes. At every level they make bad calls. But I will argue that errors are simply part and parcel of the game. Coaches make mistakes. Players make mistakes. Everyone involved with a game will make a mistake or two -– or more -- during the course of a contest. To expect officials to be perfect is, at best, naive.

While fans and coaches have always had a somewhat contentious relationship with game officials, the decline in those willing to referee seems to indicate that the intensity and amount of abuse is on the rise.

But why?

I have a couple of theories. One is the trickle-down effect of professional sports. Young impressionable players, blindly biased parents and over-zealous coaches observe the conduct of a few ill-mannered pros and believe they too have the right to berate an official's every call.

I wonder if it would make a difference in the young players' attitudes toward referees if each time they made a mistake they too were singled out and booed. How would a parent react if their little all-star had every error highlighted? Would coaches lighten up on game officials if every bad call they made was criticized?

Another theory I have on the increase in referee abuse is tied to America's mindless consumerism. Almost every aspect of our lives is tainted by someone trying to sell us something. We even have infomercials where the star of the show is a product.

In such a consumer saturated environment people naturally expect to receive preferential treatment. After all, the customer –- the consumer –- is always right. In a consumer-driven culture, everyone expects perfection from everyone –- with the exception of himself. Don't believe me? Just hide and watch the next time a waiter makes a mistake on an order.

The next time a referee makes a bad call, remember if he or she were not out there willing to wear the stripes, the game would not go on. That is, unless you are willing to take their place.

"Sports do not build character," sportswriter Haywood Hale Broun once said. "They reveal it."

And that includes how we treat game officials –- especially when we are on the wrong end of a bad call.

Kelly Boggs, whose column appears each week in Baptist Press, is editor of the Baptist Message, the newspaper of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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