Athletics officials face challenges from fans, coaches, athletes

Beavers baseball head coach Pat Casey stands with the University of Washington head coach Lindsay Meggs to discuss the game with Pac-12 baseball officials.

Munir Zarea, Brock Hulse

Officials form bonds, work together to remain focused while calling sporting events.

It’s late in the fourth quarter, 10 seconds on the shot clock and every eye in the stadium is on the ball. An altercation erupts and the whistle is blown. All eyes move to the referee, anticipating his or her final and absolute decision.

But no matter how high the stakes, there are multiple challenges that must be overcome by those who officiate competitive sports on every level in order for the games to continuously run smoothly day in and day out. Regardless as to whether the game is played in the National Collegiate Athletic Association or in collegiate intramural leagues, there is very little wiggle room for the official to make a mistake.

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“You’ve got to be able to physically run up and down the floor. These kids stay the same age, and we get older every year. And some of the complaints I get from coaches aren’t anything other than, ‘Curtis, he couldn’t get in position to see it,’” Curtis Shaw, a longtime NCAA referee for men’s basketball, said in an interview with ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada.

Shaw has recently become the director of officials for a four-conference consortium led by the Big-12, and has spent 21 seasons refereeing Division 1 games. With his new position as a director of officials, Shaw bears the responsibility of coordinating logistics of his officials, many of them holding second jobs.

“It’s my duty as a coordinator to try to handle all those situations as best as I possibly can. If I’ve got somebody who lives in western Kentucky, I can’t realistically expect them to drive to south Florida to officiate a ballgame when I know they have to be at work the next day,” Shaw said.

Officiating isn’t the only thing they do, officials must establish a foundation for learning every aspect of the game in order to be prepared for whatever they encounter. However, it’s not just large-scale officiating that can be attributed to this.

“Achieving an understanding of the sport they are officiating even exists at the intramural level,” Eric McCormick, sport programs graduate assistant at the Oregon State University Department of Recreational Sports, said via email.

McCormick oversees many of the officiated intramural leagues offered at OSU.

“Our officials certainly need to be prepared to put in time and effort into learning the sport they are officiating, at a level and depth they may not have experienced before,” McCormick said via email. “Pace of play, interacting with heated participants, and knowing some of the more obscure rules of a sport are initial challenges a new official will get to work through.”

Being prepared and ready for what’s at stake is a big part of officiating, according to McCormick. However, with the decisions made by officials often affecting the outcome of the competitions, many of them receive negative feedback from either side.

OSU baseball head coach Pat Casey was recently ejected in a game against California State University Fullerton on March 9. In the seventh inning, Casey ran out from the dugout to confront the umpire and was ejected after making contact with him. Casey was suspended by the NCAA for the next four games the Beavers played.

The kinds of confrontations don’t only happen in college level sports in the NCAA. Such argumentation between a heated player and an official is occasionally seen within intramural sports, McCormick said.

“Simply by the nature of being an official and competitive sports being involved, there are times when players or fans get heated,” McCormick said via email. “On the whole we do not have a ton of issues here at OSU, but we do get the occasional instances of excessive yelling, inappropriate language or other unsportsmanlike conduct.”

Dr. Bob Corb is the national coordinator for NCAA men’s and women’s water polo and sports psychologist. Corb had been officiating for water polo for over 30 years and is the former director of sports psychology for both University of California Riverside and University of California Los Angeles.

“There are very few studies that have shown that yelling at somebody makes them better,”  Corb said. “And we lose a lot of officials before they get a chance to be good because they just don’t want to put up with it.”

Social media can be a base for harsh language, targeted harassment and many more forms of verbal abuse. As a result, officials often refrain from getting too involved in it, according to Corb.

“It’s common sense, you know? Don’t talk about your games on social media and don’t get too involved,” Corb said.

If being an official for the NCAA means you should refrain from social media usage, Corb’s experience is similar to that of wrestling official Mike Hagerty.

As a veteran official for NCAA wrestling living in the Kansas City area, Hagerty has been around the sport for a great portion of his life, and has seen the ins and outs of what it means to be an official. He has been officiating NCAA championship wrestling tournaments since 2003, and coaches at the high school and international level.

“I certainly believe that people who have been in the field for a long time probably are able to screen that in their minds,” Hagerty said in regards to the pressure and harassment from fans, players and coaches. “Our responsibility is to keep (the match) fair and keep it safe, that’s our goal.”

Just like on the field, Hagerty notices other aspects of harassment on social media.

“There’s that collaborative effort of people gathering together and creating kind of that mob scene on the internet that sometimes takes place,” Hagerty said about social media.

Rogers Redding, currently the national coordinator of college football officiating for the NCAA, began his career as a pee-wee/youth official when he was 31. His collegiate career of on-field officiating started in 1985 and ended in 2003.

“A talented and well-trained official should be able to block out all distractions and remain laser-focused on their responsibilities for the play,” Redding said.

According to Redding, with the experience of being an official, many deal with the pressure effectively so it doesn’t affect their performance.

“Officials learn to simply ignore the harassment of fans. If it becomes serious or threatening in any way, then we turn it over to the appropriate authorities,” Redding said.

Timothy Shiels is the national coordinator of officials for wrestling in the NCAA. Shiels has officiated 14 NCAA Division I championships, seven NCAA Division II championships, 10 “Big Ten” championships and much more. He nationally oversees officials and has seen unity in the profession overtime.

“We’ve brought our officials closer together, because I think at times, some of the people that are hardest on you are other officials,” Shiels said. “The tighter, and the more unity you build in there, that’s going to be better for our officials all across the board.”

As the national coordinator of officials for wrestling, Shiels notices the strength of unity within officiating for the NCAA.

“We have 420 registered officials in the country, it’s a brotherhood.”