We require supervising adults on the field with our children to bring order to their games. Adults who know the rules. Adults who demand our children follow those rules.
We’re on the brink of an officiating catastrophe. Fans who shout insults and threaten violence are sending high school officials into retirement and preventing replacements from picking up flags and whistles.
On a recent Saturday night, I sat with two longtime Colorado Springs officials over a plate of chicken wings and listened to their stories for two hours. Please understand, these men do not officiate for the money. The average pay for officiating a high school game is $60, plus 40 cents a mile for travel. These men officiate because they love sport and believe in the need for experienced and expert order for our games.
We laughed as they told stories. My favorite featured a foul-mouthed grandmother who inspired the refs to expel her from a basketball gym. She was cussing and shouting even on her forced march to the exit.
Amid the laughter, I felt a pang of guilt. In the late 2000s, my sons played 2A football and basketball in the Springs. I watched nearly all their games, and I consistently yelled at officials. I never unloaded obscenities or made threats. I did question, sometimes at high volume, their knowledge of rules.
Now, when sitting in the stands for high school games, I’m baffled by the blindness of parents shouting at refs. Yes, I want to tell the red-faced father, your daughter did commit a foul and, by the way, it was obvious.
But I know my words will not be heard. I know because I would not have listened a decade ago.
This constant yelling and questioning and insulting have taken a dangerous toll.
Tom Robinson works as officials liaison for Colorado High School Activities Assocation, and his job grows more challenging each year because of a depressing question:
“Put in this amount of time to get this much money and get this much abuse?” he asks.
The answer, more and more, is no.
He understands the stands are packed with deeply intense fans. Many parents have watched virtually every game that includes their daughter and son. The investment is deep, and winning means so much.
Let’s be clear: It means too much.
Robinson urges those intense fans to never “cross the line.”
“You cross the line when there’s some kind of verbal confrontation when it’s pretty obvious that the official can hear it and it becomes personal,” he says. “That’s crossing the line. Fans feel they are given a right. They believe it’s just part of what you do when you go to a game is get after officials.
“It’s a culture that’s been part of us for some time, this mental state and attitude with officials. Once blood pressure arises it becomes personal, and that’s crossing the line.”
Robinson sees no way to gather the tens of thousands of Colorado high school fans to offer stern guidance on proper behavior. He hopes, against hope, the hostile culture somehow cleanses itself.
Here’s the good news: If you attend high school games, you can be part of the cleansing. Resist the temptation to cross the line. If you start shouting, realize you are verbally attacking an underpaid, well-intentioned official who might quit because of your words.
Be part of the growing catastrophe. Or be part of the cleansing. It’s your choice.
For decades, Robinson says, the number of available officials was constant. Officials who quit matched the number of new candidates. In this decade, that balance crashed.
On Wednesday, Robinson visited Middle Park High School in Granby and was told the school’s boy’s varsity soccer game had been canceled. You guessed it: No ref was willing to work for $60 while listening to irate parents. Soccer fans sit close to the action and tend to be knowledgeable of the rules and, yes, antagonistic toward refs.
The cancellation troubles Robinson. He understands the deep disappointment of players, coaches and parents.
“It’s definitely a crisis,” Robinson says, speaking a disturbing truth about our games.