They go by different names and titles.
Some are referees. Others are umpires. Still more go by (something) judge. Some are casually referred to as zebras while others are simply “Blue.”
They are game officials – the arbiter and facilitator of whatever game you care to watch.
They call balls and strikes, make holding and pass interference calls and whistle everyone not named LeBron James for committing personal fouls. They flop on the mat to see if a wrestler’s shoulder blades are pinned and step between boxers throwing haymakers. Some wear skates and helmets while doing their job and others sit casually in a high chair while tennis players fire rockets at each other. And a precious few understand the conceptual paradox that is the offside rule in soccer.
It’s safe to say we can’t have competition without them.
It’s not fair to say that they have the most thankless job in the wide, wide world of sports. There are plenty of us who have a deep appreciation for the men and women who take up the job, though some of us may be loathe to publicly admit to it.
We’ve all had our share of disagreements.
Fans, players and coaches alike will, at one time or another, question their eyesight, their level of intelligence or their parentage. More often than not we question their impartiality.
Billy Martin was famous for kicking dirt on umpires’ shoes and Bobby Knight was known for flinging chairs. Some coaches will try to reason with them calmly, other stomp their feet in disgust. Quite often they’re the same coach.
It would be more accurate to say they have the job that most resembles a lightning rod for everyone involved in the games they work and if, after the final buzzer, everyone is ticked off at them about something, they’ve probably done a good job.
To be a good game official you have to have both a sharp eye and a thick skin. It helps to have a word-for-word memory of the rule book. A massive dose of self-confidence is required.
And it doesn’t hurt to have a sense of humor.
“I wear hearing aids,” local baseball umpire Dave Sutton laughed. “I had a game where the batteries in both my hearing aids died at the same time. Now, I have to tell you, without my hearing aids I’m deaf. Well, we had a play and one of the coaches came running out of the dugout and started yelling at me. I couldn’t hear what he was trying to say, so I just got my face as close as I could to his and said ‘Coach, I have to tell you – I’m deaf. I have to read your lips.’ He just looked at me and walked away.”
If you play the game, any game, you’ve undoubtedly had a run-in or two with the game official. Either the strike zone was off, a personal foul was or wasn’t called or that handful of jersey you grabbed didn’t constitute holding.
If you play the game hard, all you can ask of your friendly neighborhood game official is that they work just as hard to get the call right. It’s hard to argue with someone who gets in the right position to make a call.
“The one thing you don’t want to ever do,” Sutton insists, “is get the rule wrong. You have to know your rule book backwards and forwards. If you get it wrong, you’re done for that game.”
Still, you rarely win an argument with an umpire or referee. And if you make your position in too strident a manner – or if, as they explain in detail in the movie “Bull Durham,” you use one of the magic words – you can get yourself tossed.
Some of us live with the ignominy of being ejected from a rec league softball game or kicked out of the dugout at the kid’s Little League game. Or get kicked off a downtown street during Hoopfest. It happens. And it’s not my, uh, our fault.
What we can all agree about, however, is that there will always be a need for more people to pick up a whistle, get fitted for a striped shirt and study the rule book.
We need more umpires. And referees. And back judges and side judges and field judges and linesmen. We need men and women to put on a pair of black shorts, even in the icy cold of October and November, and officiate a soccer game or run up and down a basketball court for a few hours at a time.
And if they can succinctly explain that soccer offside rule, so much the better.
There is an even greater need for women to take up the side job. There have been two major steps forward for high school girls sports since the advent of Title IX: when women began coaching young girls and when women began refereeing girls sports.
And that’s not to say that women can only officiate other women. There now are women officials in the NFL and there are three women refs in the NBA. Major League Baseball has had women umpires in spring training games and it’s just a matter of time before they are doing regular-season games.
But you don’t break in officiating professional sports. You have to pay your dues, just like players do.
“It’s something I always suggest high school kids, boys and girls, take up,” Sutton said. “That’s a good age to take up being an umpire. You can work with the little kids. You can get a mentor to help you learn how to do the job. And you can make a little money doing it.”
That’s one of the best things about umpires and referees: they have a fraternity that defies gender. They support one another, they help one another and they mentor each other.
“I was paired with a young kid for a game and the one thing about him that I really appreciated was that he was so eager to learn,” Sutton said. “He was a little raw at first and I talked to him and worked with him a little bit. We talked about his mechanics and what he had to look for before the first pitch. Things like that. By the end of the game he was doing good and I think he’s going to ultimately end up being a great umpire.
“That’s something my brother and I have always believed. Thom has been umpiring for 48 years and I’ve been doing it for 38. We’ve always said that you’re never too old to learn – even something you think you already knew.”
If that sounds like you, reach out to the appropriate officiating association near you.
They need you.
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