Guest Column - January 2013
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Sports Officiating

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.