Camden Herrick was looking for a part-time job that would keep him connected to his favorite sport. So he signed up for an officiating course and has been working as a referee in youth soccer matches for two years.
Herrick, a 16-year-old junior at Skowhegan Area High, wants to officiate high school games once he gets into college.
“It has helped me as a soccer player,” he said. “You understand the game more. When my teammates get upset with a call, I tell them that the referee is doing everything he can.”
Officer teams could use many more like him. The pool of game officials to work high school games is at a precarious level in Maine and much of the nation, regardless of sport. The average age of gaming officials in Maine is 56, so recruiting and retaining younger people is imperative. Verbal abuse from fans and coaches is cited as the main reason why it is difficult to attract and keep new referees.
Herrick has already had a dose of that.
I was officiating a game at a junior girls’ state soccer tournament this summer when a coach complained loudly about what he perceived to be a missed call. After Herrick let her know enough is enough, she continued to complain.
“I gave him a yellow card and he immediately shut up,” he said of taking command of the situation. “You have to be in control.”
With the high school fall sports season scheduled to start this week, the ranks of game officials are thin, but they should be enough to ensure all college games are umpired, said Jeff Benson, commissioner of officials for the Association of Maine directors. , the agency that oversees high school sports in the state. To achieve this, some games on the schedule will need to be moved to other days of the week.
THURSDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
In soocer, there will be more games on Thursdays, in addition to the traditional Friday night games. There are 180 game officials this season, according to Allan Snell, the officials’ liaison with the MPA Football Committee: 195 are needed to cover all games each week and each official works only one game. Last fall, the Southwest Maine Board of Soccer Officials, which primarily serves Cumberland and York counties, had 58 officials, up from 84 in 2019.
“It’s a never-ending battle, and it’s on a national level,” Benson said. “We are not unique.”
Dana Pappas, director of officiating services for the National Federation of State High School Associations, said the number of game officials dropped 9 percent from the 2018-19 school year to 2021-22. Some of that can be attributed to officials stepping down due to COVID-19 concerns, she said. Last year, the number of game officials nationally rebounded by 6 percent from 2019-20, and Pappas said he’s still analyzing the data to determine how much of that increase was due to veteran officials returning after that their COVID concerns subsided.
In Maine, most fall sports struggle to field enough officials for college games.
The field hockey umpire pool in Maine has shrunk from 90 to 72 since 2019, with five or six new officials expected to start playing this year, said Kim Ballantyne, a longtime official and hockey committee liaison. on grass of the MPA. In the Augusta/Waterville area, there are now 23 field hockey umpires, up from 30 last year.
“This is definitely going to make it difficult to fill all the games,” said Laurie Leavitt, a field hockey official and officiating assignor in central Maine.
In soccer, there are eight regional boards of officials, said Alex Pleau, president of the Maine Soccer Officials Association. The South Central Board, of which Pleau is a member, serves schools in the Lewiston/Auburn/Rumford area, and has 20 members covering seven schools.
“We used to have about 40 guys 10 years or so ago,” he said.
Volleyball is a bucking sport heading into the fall, with 65 umpires statewide, a dozen more than last season, according to Jeff Scully, umpires’ liaison with the MPA volleyball committee. Several of the recruits are officials Scully knows from other sports, he said.
WORSENING OF VERBAL ABUSE
Last October, Scully gathered the results of a survey sent to gaming officials across the state. In all, 495 high school officials responded, with 14 sports represented. The average age of the officials who responded to the survey was 56 years. Officials under the age of 40 represented only 12 percent. Two-thirds were at least 50 years old.
“We don’t have anyone jumping in to take his place,” Scully said.
When asked to name the biggest obstacles to attracting new game officials, 78 percent of respondents cited perceived or actual abuse from parents or fans as a factor. Half of the responding officials said they had been verbally or physically abused by a coach, fan or student-athlete to the extent that they reported it to the athletic director of the host school.
Ballantyne, the field hockey referee, said the problem appears to have gotten worse in recent years and players who might have considered to officiate have noticed.
“Young officials just starting out don’t want anything to do with it,” he said.
Ron Kramer, 65, a longtime official who works in soccer, ice hockey and kids’ lacrosse games, officiated a hockey game this summer at the Family Ice Center in Falmouth. One fan was so verbally abusive that Kramer walked off the ice and refused to return from the locker room until the fan was removed from the arena. Scully and Pleau have similar stories about dealing with fans who go overboard.
However, they point out that they are all experienced officials. A younger referee just starting out is more likely to have second thoughts when it comes to abusive fans.
Twenty-two states have statutes regarding verbal or physical assault by game officials. In New England, only Massachusetts and Rhode Island have such laws. In Massachusetts, anyone over the age of 16 who verbally assaults a game official or participant may be subject to a $50 fine.
“If we had a zero-tolerance policy toward fan behavior (in Maine), that would be a great help,” Pleau said.
Scully is a baseball umpire and repeatedly listens to the complaints of the fans.
“I just finished the season and I was wondering if I could do this another year,” he said. “I hear it all season long in baseball. (Parents) pay $5,000 to $6,000 for the summer dance and they think that gives them the right to yell at the referees.”
Others cite low wages as an impediment to arbitration. This fall, game officials will be paid $77 to $82 per college high school game in Maine, depending on the sport, along with mileage reimbursement (45 cents per mile). If an umpire is able to carpool to a game with another umpire, they are paid an additional fee based on distance. According to the contract that the Maine Directors Association submitted to each umpiring board, game officials will be paid $87.50 per varsity game beginning in the 2024-25 school year, regardless of sport.
Darren Allen, the men’s soccer coach at Mt. Abram High in Strong, suggested a pay raise could be one way to attract new, younger game officials, but acknowledged the challenge goes much deeper.
“I am concerned about the lack of young officers in the group,” he says. “I see guys, and this is not negative by any means, but I see guys (who were referees) when I played. That’s great, but there has to be some program to channel and make it attractive for some young people to go and officiate.”
The Field Hockey Umpires Association has run ads on MPA state championship game shows in an effort to recruit newcomers. The Bangor Board of Football Officials has placed newspaper advertisements inviting newcomers to take the refereeing course offered each year.
When recruiting new officials, the sales pitch should revolve around having fun while staying involved in a sport you love, veteran officials said. If it’s not fun, why do it, Kramer said.
Pleau, the state’s football chief, said he started umpiring a decade ago when he heard people talking about it while working out at an Auburn gym. Pleau started out with lacrosse, then added soccer the following fall. He dedicated himself to it, going to games just to study how the referees worked and ask them questions. In this sense, Pleau knows that he is the exception and not the norm.
“I never considered that I could become a referee. You show up to the games and they are there. Basic awareness (on how to become a game official) is missing,” Pleau said. “It takes a certain type. There are many alphas who officiate. You have to be nice, you have to be stern, and you have to be able to deal with crazy things that come up.”
Jeff Mertzel, a longtime umpire who works football, basketball and baseball games, said he believes veteran umpires like himself should focus on working with newcomers to understand their concerns before they decide to leave umpiring.
“The sense of belonging is huge and if we forget this aspect of arbitration, we can also lose members. I remember the senior members of the boards that I joined making sure that I was included in many different aspects of arbitration and that really made me feel comfortable and gave me a sense of belonging,” Mertzel said.
Ballantyne said that when he pitches the idea of officiating to high school and college field hockey players, he focuses on the scheduling flexibility it provides rather than coaching.
“You can still be a part of the game. It’s the best seat in the house. You have the opportunity to continue to be a part of the game you love,” said Bill Leary, Fairfield’s longtime youth baseball umpire and football official. “It’s a great opportunity and very rewarding.”