Not all official tales are horror stories

Not all official tales are horror stories

We have all heard the horror stories of officiating high school sports.

We know by now that the numbers of high school officials have been dropping so rapidly around that nation that canceled games are an inevitability.

In some areas, those cancellations have already begun.

We have heard so many examples, from this year alone, of appalling fan behavior at youth sporting events.

Last week, we heard the story of the limping 68-year-old official who was heckled as he did his best to get up and down the court during a girls’ basketball game.

The stories we do not hear enough, however, are the ones that keep the officials coming back for more.

“People don’t realize it’s a blast,” one long-time multi-sport Butte official said of being a referee.

Butte’s official’s pool works games all around Southwestern Montana.

“We do volleyball in Lima,” the official said of the town of a little more than 200 people about 110 miles south of population 35,000 metropolis that is Butte. “They cannot believe that a big city person — Butte — would drive all the way to Lima.”

“They can’t believe we would give up a night. They think we are heroes.”

Butte is on the verge of an official crisis, the official told me. I am not using his name because, well, the name does not matter.

He is not the official I wrote about last week, but he, too, is contemplating retirement because of bad knees.

This official could be an official in any town in any state. The problem is everywhere. Today, we will just focus on Butte.

Currently, Butte’s pool has 28 officials who referee varsity high school basketball games. Several of these officials are planning on hanging up their whistles because their bodies are breaking down.

Probably half of those officials are over the age of 50, and many of them are older than 60. Several of the younger officials are about to graduate from Montana Tech and move out of town to start their careers.

With the departures and retirements, the official said Butte’s pool could be down to about 20 referees for next basketball season. That just will not cut it.

“We need officials,” the official said. “We’ll train them. We’ll train them now if they want to be trained now.”

He stressed the point of training immediately. People who want to become officials can start working with veteran referees before this season is over.

They will take them to a gym and show them the ropes. They will also help them prepare for and pass the open-book test so they can be ready in time for the start of next season.

“We’ll start training you on Tuesday,” the official said.

That training might help potential new officials realize that things really are not really as bad as they seem for officials.

For one thing, the pay is pretty good.

Each official is paid $60 for a high school varsity game. Pay for subvarsity was recently bumped up $12 to $48 per game.

That is not going to bump you up to the next tax bracket, but it is a pretty good chunk of change for about an hour and a half of work.

Is it worth being yelled at all game? Well, that is for each to decide.

The thing to remember is that most of that shouting is not personal.

Just think of it like yelling at the driver of the car in front of you as you drive to work.

You will yell some of the worst things imaginable at a driver going 24 in a 25, but you do not say a word when you end up parking next to the driver 3 minutes later.

For whatever reason, many fans feel detached enough to yell at officials as if they are in another car and cannot hear them.

When they meet the official face to face after the game, nothing but pleasantries are exchanged.

The benefits of officiating greatly outweigh those screams, the official said.

One of those benefits is that referees get to know high school coaches from around the state.

“These coaches are fantastic people,” the official said. “With 99 percent of them, the minute the game is over, it’s over. There’s not one coach that I hated. They’re really great people. The fans are, too.”

“Most of the people who do the yelling really are great people. They just get caught up in it.”

The official I talked to has been recruiting officials for as long as he has refereed and umpired. He sees a younger generation of potential officials scared off by some of those frightening stories that many have seen with their own eyes.

However, he pointed out that a lot of those incidents come from traveling tournaments, not high school events.

One young Butte official was recently verbally accosted by multiple coaches and fans at a travel tournament. It took other fans to step in and make sure the confrontation did not get physical.

The only fallout from that incident is we now have one more potential official saying “no thanks” to the prospect of joining the Montana Officials Association.

“It’s not the players,” the official said. “At the high school level, it’s not the coaches. It really isn’t the fans. It’s these tournaments where there’s no authority there.”

“When you’re doing high school games, you only listen to one coach. In these traveling tournaments, they have so many people screaming at them. They don’t know how to handle it.”

At high school games, each school has administrators who focus on the student sections. Instead, perhaps those administrators should sit by the parents’ sections.

The student sections are just trying to have fun. Too many adults, on the other hand, seem to be trying to make sure the rest of the fans cannot.

When those fans cross the line, as they have been doing more frequently each season, we need those administrators to start throwing them out.

If we start printing the names of the ejected fans, along with a paragraph describing their deplorable behavior, in the newspapers — like we do with drunk drivers — things will clean up in a hurry.

Unfortunately, we do not have time for rational problem solving.

The day is coming — and it’s coming fast — that games in our parts are going to be canceled because we do not have enough officials.

“It’s coming,” the official said of such cancellations. “Oh, it’s coming.”

That is why we need some new officials to step up, and we need them to step up now. And in all sports.

While our Butte official pool is aging and several officials are breaking down physically, those officials will still be around to get new officials up to speed.

New officials will have hundreds of years of experience at their disposal.

“A lot of young guys don’t know they’re going to get help. They think they’re just going to stick me on the court by myself,” the official said. “There are people in the MOA who are willing to take anyone and train them to get them ready so there is not such a shock.”

“They’ll get help. They’ll get as much help as they need.”

They will probably even give you a ride to Lima.

— Bill Foley, who will not give you a ride to Lima, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on Email him at Follow him at

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