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After a controversial penalty called toward the end of Sunday night’s Super Bowl, armchair referees across the country weighed in with plenty of thoughts and even some outrage. Everybody knows better than the refs, it would seem.
Football fans, particularly Philadelphia Eagles fans, lamented that a defensive holding penalty would be called at such a decisive moment of a close championship game. As the penalized player acknowledged after the game, however, it was in fact a penalty.
“I was hoping he would let it go, but of course he’s a ref, it was a big game,” Philadelphia cornerback James Bradberry said after the game, as reported by ESPN. “It was a hold, so they called it.”
That’s playbook accountability and sportsmanship. Bradberry didn’t shift blame to the referees, as many have. He took responsibility.
Sports fans across the country should follow Bradberry’s lead. They should stop complaining about officiating, and put their energy into more productive pursuits, like being good sports or even picking up a whistle and becoming referees themselves. Because they still are needed, here in Maine and across the country.
Jeff Benson, the Maine Principals’ Association commissioner on officials, told the Bangor Daily News editorial board on Tuesday that the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the referee shortage in multiple ways, with experienced referees retiring during that time and the lack of games making it difficult to get young people involved in officiating. Benson said that “probably this is at its largest point for fan behavior not being great” and also encouraged people to remember that officiating is often a second job for many referees.
“They’re just giving back to the game that gave them something, and we really appreciate their efforts,” Benson said.
For all the conversation about the quality of officiating in professional sports, and even the trend to replace some of these officials with technology, the real challenge is being felt at the local level. Referees for youth and high school competitions are in short supply nationally, with unruly and argumentative behavior from parents, other fans and coaches consistently cited as a big factor.
“Parents harassing the umpires and referees of youth sports is not a new thing. But I bet I could easily make the case that it’s far worse today than it was a few years ago,” sports contributor Jeff Solari wrote in the BDN recently.
In that same piece, Solari quoted a social media post from a local referee who was driven to compiling a list of all the other things he could be doing with his time rather than getting yelled at in a gym.
“Spent my afternoon yesterday being verbally assaulted, mocked, threatened, belittled and yelled at….while basically volunteering my time reffing 5TH AND 6TH GRADE TRAVEL BASKETBALL,” the official posted.
“And we wonder why there is a referee shortage in all sports. We don’t do it for the money either. Trust me on that,” the referee continued.
This is neither a new problem or a Maine specific problem. Look at the similar headlines just in the past year: “Maine high school teams shuffle schedules due to referee shortage,” in the BDN in August, and “Nationwide referee shortage impacting high school and youth sports” from a San Diego TV station that same month.
Amid the challenges, there may be some hope. Benson said that just in his area in the western part of the state, there are 30 new basketball officials this year.
“That might be a small uptick, but I can tell you, those young people that got into it, in joining our board, we are greatly pleased by that,” Benson said.
There have also been local efforts to get teenagers involved in refereeing as many older officials hang up their whistles.
“It’s really so important for people to have those games, and just to be a part of it is an awesome opportunity,” youth referee Brynne Sawyer, then a junior at Belfast Area High School, told the BDN last spring.
Efforts like this one are encouraging and should be built on further. The simplest and most obvious solution, however, is for people to stop making an already difficult job intolerable for local referees. We hope it will be all cheering and excitement, not anger and yelling, now that it’s time for the high school basketball tournament.
And even better, if people really want to be part of the solution rather than making things worse, they can join the referee ranks themselves. The MPA has information about how to do that on its website.