Sports officials needed to answer, make the call

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Brad Fogg started officiating soccer around the same time he started working as a guard at Maine Correctional Center in Windham. After 36 years of doing both, he has found they have a lot in common.

“Being a prison guard and soccer officiating are kind of the same,” said Fogg, 57, of Gray. “You learn good communication skills. You’re firm, fair and consistent in your application of the rules. That’s what we want referees to be — firm, fair and consistent.”

Gray didn’t go so far as to compare games to prison riots, but they are often chaotic and intense in their own way. The action on the field, court or ice can become very physical. Tempers flare. Over the course of a game or match, coaches, players and fans reach various levels of competitiveness, frustration and desperation. Emotions swing from one extreme to the other and back again in an instant.

In need of an outlet for their emotions, they often use the person charged with keeping order on the playing surface, the official. Verbal taunts and insults from the crowd and disputes from players and coaches escalate. The hotter the competition gets, the hotter the official’s neck gets.

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Staying firm, fair and consistent under such circumstances can be difficult. Many find it too difficult and get out of officiating after only a year or two.

It is one of the reasons some sports in the state are having a hard time finding enough officials to work their varsity games. Varsity contests draw the crowds and they also draw the qualified officials, so many sports are struggling even more for officiating help at the games where there are few people around to notice a shortage.

“The challenge as I see it here in Maine is it’s the lower levels that are most in need because they play typically during the work week afternoon,” said Scott Morrison, Edward Little swim coach and a swimming official. “There are a lot of logistical issues, but also a lot of opportunity for people content to officiate those levels.”

Regardless of what levels need more officials, virtually all sports need officials who aren’t old enough to remember when baseball and softball umpires used those bulky outside chest protectors .

“What we need is young blood,” said Doug Burdin, president of Board 20 of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials (IAABO), which covers Franklin, Kennebec, Somerset and Waldo counties. “We do have a tier of guys that within the next five years are going to be getting done. There are going to be a lot of games for guys to do and it’s our job to make sure there are guys to take care of them. But for every 10 officials that pass the test, you hope to get four or five good ones that you know are going to be with you for 20 years and are going to progress.”

While some officiating organizations in the state are losing their battle with attrition or looking to offset the aging pool of officials, others are scrambling to keep up with the growth of their sport.

Supply and demand

Even those with the greatest need for officials acknowledge it could be, and in some cases has been, worse. The down economy has brought new officials into the fold or out of retirement.

Officiating is more of an avocation than vocation, but it can provide a stable supplemental income. Varsity high school officials can make as much as $62.50 per game. 

“Last year we had one of our biggest classes of officials come through for basketball,” said Jeff Benson, a veteran baseball and basketball official. “We picked up between 10 and 20 members, which is wonderful. And I know in baseball this year we had 10 new guys pass the test.”

Fall sports seem to be having more difficulty than winter and spring sports. Field hockey has about 100 officials statewide to cover varsity, JV and middle school games. Juggling schedules to get two officials to all games is a constant challenge, especially when the unpredictable autumn weather forces postponements that back-load the schedule.

“It’s tough. In certain areas it’s really tough because of the availability of officials,” said Gail Santerre of the Maine Field Hockey Officials Association. “There is always room for new officials, and a number of officials are getting to the point where they want to get done and less numbers are coming in, so we need to get new officials in.”

Soccer has been dealing with a shortage since the sport started undergoing a major growth spurt in Maine 30 years ago. Officials sometimes work two or three games per day and as many as 60 or 70 games over the course of a six-week season to make sure all of the games are filled.

“There are days that we can’t put two officials on every one of our games, so some of our middle school games have to go with one official,” said Dennis Crowe, a soccer official who also assigns officials to games in western Maine.

“One of our biggest problems is getting new officials on board and then mentoring them and developing them,” Fogg said. “There’s been a shortage. It’s getting better. I think last year we brought on board 10 or 12 new officials, but sometimes that’s not enough to cover all of the games.”

High school football in Maine has been a victim of its own exploding popularity. Since the mid-1990’s, 19 schools have either launched a new football program or brought one back from hiatus.  A number of established schools have added lights to their home fields in recent years, stretching the pool of available officials even thinner on Friday nights.

In recent years, the Portland and Waterville-area boards have had to import officials from the Augusta area board to have a complete four-man crew for some games.

“The growth of the game is a good thing, but what that does is leave us trying to keep up with the demand for officials,” said Rick Olfene, a football official and past president of the Southwestern Maine Board of Approved Football Officials, which covers the Portland area and York County.

Finding and keeping new blood

Olfene and others believe it is time for everyone involved in high school sports in Maine to become more involved with bringing new officials into the fold.

“These officiating groups are not going to be able to sustain the numbers that they need on their own,” he said. “We have to have cooperation from all resources, including schools, the participating communities and the Maine Principals’ Association.”

Boards typically rely on word of mouth to get new officials. Many boards have handshake agreements with their counterparts in other sports to encourage officials to become certified in another sport, and most officials are certified in more than one sport. They may also take out ads or hold clinics open to the public.

Some boards are recruiting potential young officials more aggressively, looking to the youth, high school and college levels to encourage current and former athletes to consider officiating as a way to stay involved in the game. They offer junior officiating programs or college courses to introduce young people to officiating.

Some boards have changed the way they teach and test prospective officials. Western Maine IAABO Board 21, which with over 250 members has one of the largest chapters in the nation, has relaxed its testing rules after years of allowing applicants one chance to pass the initial certification test. Officiating candidates now get a second chance if they fail the first time.

“We weren’t getting people to come out. We weren’t attracting them, and we needed them,” Benson said. “We had to change the old way and make it so that you’ve got to not only teach people the craft of officiating, but how to take the test.”

The board also changed the dynamic in the classroom to help new officials learn the rules at their own pace. For eight weeks, starting the last week of September, Benson and another veteran official, Barry Fuller, hold weekly classes in the Lewiston/Auburn area where they teach new officials one rule section per night. Similar classes are held in the Bath/Brunswick, Portland and York areas.

“In the past, we always used to have the new people meet with the veterans,” Benson said. “For the past couple of years, we’ve separated them and just given them their own classes so they don’t get overwhelmed by the veteran officials’ war stories and horror stories.”

Keeping new officials around long enough to collect some war stories of their own would help prevent future shortages.

Crowe said it is incumbent upon established officials to help with the development and retention of new officials.

“I don’t think our high school boards do enough to nurture our young officials,” he said. “The ones that are on the periphery (working subvarsity games) need more support.”

To that end, some boards have started mentoring programs where veteran officials are assigned to work with their newer colleagues to help them with mechanics, interpreting rules in game situations, and dealing with unfriendly crowds, coaches and players.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to luring and keeping new officials is the public perception that it is a job that requires too much time, engenders too much scrutiny and verbal abuse and occasional physical abuse and doesn’t have enough rewards.

Veteran officials say the opposite is true. The time and effort builds camaraderie with other officials, the scrutiny and verbal abuse is easy to ignore once you get used to it, and the incidents of physical abuse are overblown by the media.

The rewards, they add, are tangible and intangible. Along with camaraderie and the money, it gives them the best seat in the house, it helps them stay involved with and give back to the sports they played and love and and it helps them stay in shape. It’s also the closest thing there is to playing without putting on a glove or holding a stick.

“It’s the thrill of competition. Can I meet the challenge? Can I get better?” Benson said.

Unlike players and coaches, officials don’t go home as a winner or a loser. But they can go home after a game and feel the same sense of satisfaction from a job well done, especially if they know they did their job without anyone noticing.

Coming Monday in Part 2 of 3: What it takes to become an official, and why some decide it isn’t for them while others try to advance through the ranks to ultimately become college and professional officials.

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