Why we’re running out of sports officials at an alarming rate and what we can do to fix it

The National Association of Sports Officials is running a new public service announcement campaign to recruit arbiters.

Recently, I received a plea from the National Association of Sports Officials, a mass mailout to those of us who have, over the years, picked up whistle, or a chest protector, or a set of penalty cards: officials, umpires, referees, judges. You know who we are. We have uniforms that identify us as the people who make sure games and matches are orderly, fair, and safe for the participants and fans.

These jobs have never been easy. In fact, I just read a story about gladiator battles in ancient Rome, and it seems archeologists have found evidence that those furious brawls were indeed kept in check by referees in white togas, arbiters who, no doubt, didn’t always please the fans and felt the collective wrath of coliseum crowds.

Let me mention here that I was a sports official for four decades. While I mostly served on amateur baseball and football fields, over the years I worked basketball, soccer, and ice hockey games, as well. I’ve been called names and screamed at, nose-to-nose on occasion. I’ve been threatened. I’ve been heartily booed by fans, and periodically required a police escort to my car. I’ve always understood that this is all part of the job.

Four decades of officiating amateur sports taught me it’s not all rainbows and unicorns out there, but the violence against officials is getting progressively worse.

However, the derision aimed at officials in the last few decades has accelerated at a frightening pace. In a 2019 NASO study, 53% of youth sports officials admitted to feeling unsafe or being threatened while working a game. When these moments happen, officials are expected to refrain from harsh, antagonistic, or violent responses. We cannot strike back if we’ve been hit. We cannot swear or speak in an aggressive way. At all times we are expected to be the “adults in the room,” even when there is the threat of bodily harm.

But the anger and violence has gotten so out of hand that states have been considering legislation to protect umpires and referees. Kansas House Bill 2520 failed in its effort to increase the penalty for assault and battery against sports officials in 2020, but a similar bill in Ohio did increase the penalties for such crimes last year.

You are probably wondering why you should care. I’ll let Ohio State Representative Joe Miller, a sports official of 20 years, explain.

“This legislation is vitally important to protect sports officials in Ohio and to ensure that we are able to recruit and retain the next generation of umpires and referees,” Miller said. “That is why it is imperative for us to maintain a safe and welcoming environment for everyone involved. Ohio needs to do more to protect our officials, and avoid this looming crisis before referee shortages become a major obstacle in the future.” 

Sadly, the “future” is here. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 80% of high school officials are now quitting before their third year, mostly because of the ongoing abuse, which has now spread off the field to the Internet, where parents and social media trolls continue the attacks.

So I ask you, what will you do when you get the kids or grandkids all amped up for their game, dress them in their uniforms, take them to the field, and no officials appear? I have often felt that is the only moment anyone cares about those of us in stripes, because there is no game without us. Headlines all over the country are now pointing out that contests are being cancelled because there aren’t enough officials to go around.

Local sports officiating associations need to reach out to women, then train and support them on the field.

What can we do? Fans, parents, and coaches need to lighten up, especially when we’re dealing with high school and youth sports? Please remember that the vast majority of children will never be college, Olympic, or professional athletes. They play sports to learn life skills and to be happy, successful adults. Your bad behavior in the stands is not helping and it could lead to a lack of competitive opportunities if there’s no one around to yell, “Play Ball!”

I must also place blame on the officiating associations themselves: the local groups that recruit, train, and assign sports officials, because you too are partly to blame for the shortage of officials. You don’t do a very good job of enticing half the population to pick up a whistle. I’m talking, of course, about recruiting women. I’ve called games in six states over 40 years, and I never felt accepted by many of my peers and was quite aware there were men who refused to work with me. As one of my supervisors pointed out, “You might get somewhere if you officiated girls sports.” That I happened to love football and baseball was not important. As a woman officiating boys sports I was a freak and, four decades later, that perception hasn’t changed. The sports world is missing out on millions of recruits with the good-old-boy attitude that still prevails in officiating.

We can do better, people. Fans, parents, coaches, players, and local associations can all work together to make the turf more hospitable for officials. And let’s do this quickly or someday you might be wistfully telling your children about the games we used to play.

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Ancient ruins, haunted memories, and a ruthless criminal combine with a touch of mystic presence in this taut mystery about a crime we all must address.


Anne Montgomery

Contemporary Women’s Fiction/Suspense

TouchPoint Press

September 13, 2021

Maggie, a National Park Ranger of Native American descent, is back at The Castle—a six-hundred-year-old pueblo carved into a limestone cliff in Arizona’s Verde Valley. Maggie, who suffers from depression, has been through several traumas: the gang rape she suffered while in the Coast Guard, the sudden death of her ten-year-old son, and a suicide attempt.

One evening, she chases a young Native American boy through the park and gasps as he climbs the face of The Castle cliff and disappears into the pueblo. When searchers find no child, Maggie’s friends believe she’s suffering from depression-induced hallucinations.

Maggie has several men in her life. The baker, newcomer Jim Casey, who always greets her with a warm smile and pink boxes filled with sweet delicacies. Brett Collins, a scuba diver who is doing scientific studies in Montezuma Well, a dangerous cylindrical depression that houses strange creatures found nowhere else on Earth. Dave, an amiable waiter with whom she’s had a one-night stand, and her new boss Glen.

One of these men is a serial rapist and Maggie is his next target. In a thrilling and terrifying denouement, Maggie faces her rapist and conquers her worst fears once and for all.


Also available on NetGalley

Contact: Chelsea Pieper, Publicity Manager, Media Liaison

Review/interview requests: media@touchpointpress.com

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