Millennial Adventures: Can we give the zebras a break?

Next time you see your friendly neighborhood referee or umpire, you might want to apologize to them.

We’ve all done it. Every sport, every level. “That was a high block!” “Do you want my glasses because you’re so blind?” Insert choice expletives and nasty looks here. These are all things that I’ve heard or seen within the last year from players, coaches and fans.

As a fan and former player of a few sports, I haven’t agreed with every call, but I’ve never been one to outright challenge an official or say mean things to them, and it’s always bothered me when other people do. Now that I’ve become an official myself, it drives me up the wall.

A series of unfortunate happenstances involving three questionably concussive hits in seven months forced me to end my derby career as a player last fall. I switched to reffing over the winter because I wanted to stay involved, get more use out of my gear, and help solve our officiating shortage.

As much as people love to hate us, no one actually wants to do the job.

This isn’t a derby specific problem. Softball, for example, needs two umps for the game to go smoothly, but little league softball gets one if they’re lucky, and sometimes that means pulling a parent or coach.

I’m a scorekeeper for a local hockey league, which also requires two refs, and often our refs have to work all five games in a day because there aren’t enough to even out the schedule.

Derby requires seven refs. You can imagine how fun that is to coordinate.

When you’re short on officials, calls get missed because there aren’t enough eyes on things, and people get mad. When you’re full-staffed, sometimes calls still get missed because, contrary to popular belief, officials are also humans.

I’ll be the first to admit that some of my calls are junk. Most of us officiate at the level of play we’re officiating for; you’re not going to get a major league-level ump at a game full of 9-year-olds.

Most of us don’t get paid, either. We’re out there because we want to be, and also because we have to be for the game to function efficiently and safely.

I’ve held my tongue at softball games where parents who take things far too seriously – no one is going to lose out on a D1 full ride because the ump missed a tag, guys – but there have been times I’ve been tempted to tell them that if they’re so good at calls, they should gear up and get out there.

Unfortunately I’ve seen players who also officiate who are just as terrible.

On the flip side, there’s also the idea that officiating is easy and any John Q. Public can do it.

As a young and naïve skater-in-training, I told one of our refs that if I wasn’t a good enough skater to play, I’d ref instead. I didn’t realize how much of an insult that was until I started training and more recently when lower-level skaters who aren’t satisfied with their progress have told me they want to ref.

It’s one thing to know the rules and another thing to interpret them, enforce them, communicate them clearly and do it on the fly with wheels on your feet. I’ve only been reffing for six months or so, but because we’re so few and far between, I had to turn down three games in June because I needed a break; I can’t imagine what certified officials have to go through.

So be nice to your officials. Or, better yet, be nice to them and get out there yourself.

Amanda Hutchinson is the assistant community editor for the Times.

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