Keeping Officials 'In the Game'
By James Blair III, Peter J. Titlebaum & Corinne M. Daprano
What are some common problems or themes in current officiating systems?
First, according to Psychology of Officiating by Robert Weinberg and Peggy Richardson, sport officials experience an extensive chronic and acute stress, which strongly influences their performance quality. Referees are expected to remain unaffected, objective, fair and thorough during game play. The National Officiating Program has documented that players, coaches and sports fans often curse or threaten referees when their decisions are considered controversial.
Second, David Rainey reported in his article, "Assaults on Umpires," that 13.6 percent, an alarmingly high percentage, of responding umpires had been assaulted at least once while officiating. This data suggests that assaults on referees are not uncommon. As of 2010, an article in the Journal of Physical Education reported that 16 states have passed assault and battery laws for sports officials. In the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, sportsmanship has been described as pro-social behaviors that occur in a sport setting. Unfortunately, a lack of sportsmanship in youth sports is tolerated and at times encouraged and displayed by coaches and parents.
This lack of sportsmanship has led to an increasing problem in retention of officials, who are becoming turned off by the officiating experience. The article "Recruitment and Retention of Sports Officials" included research that suggests a new framework for a successful officials' retention program. The following steps are suggested for officials' associations: market the job; set standards for officials under consideration to be hired; continually evaluate officials and the program; set up mentoring programs; create incentives; create a job structure where officials can advance; set policies on how games will be assigned; and hold fans, participants (players and coaches) and officials accountable for their behavior during a sporting event.
These are good suggestions, which could provide successful retention and development of officials. Peter Titlebaum, Ron Dick, Brian Crow and Corinne Daprano later surveyed basketball officials and reported the results in their article "Staying in the Game: Basketball Official's Perspective," to see what they enjoyed, disliked and wanted to see improved about officiating.
The items that had the greatest impact on their decision to continue officiating included the cost of gear, facilities available to officials and number of required meetings. In contrast, when asked the reasons they officiate, the top three responses all focused on an enthusiasm for sports, a desire to contribute to player learning and excitement.
The increasingly abrasive attitudes of parents, fans and coaches had the greatest influence on the respondents' perceived levels of safety. Another important item related to safety, as expressed by the respondents, is the perception of the qualifications of fellow officials. Disappointingly, the rate of assaults has remained steady over the past decade, but the perception of safety concerns by officials appears to be contributing to higher turnover. Previously, Rainey had reported that 11 percent of umpires said they had been assaulted in their careers. This more recent study found similar results, where 12.7 percent reporting they had been assaulted. Some 25 percent of those officials did not report the incident to anyone of authority.
Based on the survey results and past research, there are several areas that need to be addressed. First, officials work in hostile environments, with coaches, players and fans often losing their cool. One problem may be with the societal acceptance of poor behavior by professional athletes and their coaches. When participants, coaches and fans at lower levels see how professionals in the sport disrespect and degrade officials, they get the impression that this is acceptable behavior. As a result, this behavior comes out at lower levels of competition, in verbal and physical abuse, which, mentioned earlier, had occurred an alarmingly high rate of 13.6 percent.
This behavior is unacceptable and has led to several recommendations. We suggest that the NBA and officials association partner up to run a campaign pushing respect for the game. This could include real-life or fictitious scenarios depicting good sportsmanship and acceptable behavior against poor sportsmanship and unacceptable behaviors.
We also recommend that local high school officiating organizations offer programs on how to handle hostile situations. This could include role-playing in fictitious scenarios and allow experienced officials to give examples of situations they have been in and how they resolved them or how they turned sour.
Second, game assignors need to have a clear and transparent process of how games are assigned. Responses from our project indicate there are two areas where officials felt assignors had significant, and perhaps unfair, influence. Officials felt that assignors singled out favorites who benefited from those relationships. Closely related to this was the feeling that assignors possessed position power and leveraged it disproportionately.
By creating a schedule with rationales as to why officials are receiving certain high-profile or more games than other officials, the assignor could have meetings with officials to go over what they need to do to get assigned more frequently or to higher-profile games. With current technology, this could be done in any location utilizing web technology such as Skype.
These are just suggestions to address two of the problems uncovered in our current officiating system with the goal of preventing officiating burnout and better official evaluating. Future research would allow us to better understand the officiating system and how to make other improvements.
Future studies should look into the following: Do assignors see the same problems officials are seeing with the current officiating system?
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