In nearly every high school sport, Maine needs more referees.

The number of basketball officials has declined by 13 percent over the past decade. Soccer has seen a 9 percent decline, baseball 25 percent. Field hockey plays quarterfinal playoff games over two dates because there aren’t enough officials to cover all the action on one day. Help is needed on occasion from refs in New Hampshire and Massachusetts to ensure coverage of girls’ lacrosse games in southern Maine.

And the challenge to find game officials is even greater at the junior varsity, middle school and youth levels.

Many of the folks blowing whistles are close to retirement. As game officials leave the field, replacements are hard to find and even harder to retain. A historically low unemployment rate, low pay and verbal abuse from fans all act as deterrents.

ANGER CAN BOIL OVER

That’s why Libby Davis seemed like a perfect candidate to help ease the problem.

A college lacrosse player, she was recruited by the president of the Maine Women’s Lacrosse Officials Association. Davis took a three-week class on rules and procedures and passed a written exam.

Ellie Knights officiates a game last year in Yarmouth between the Sanford and Biddeford girls. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

She was 21 last spring, with about a dozen games until her belt in her first season as a game official, when things started to spiral out of control at a youth girls’ lacrosse game.

“The coaches were yelling at each other,” Davis recalled. “And then they were yelling at the players, and then yelling at the refs, saying that we did not know how to officiate lacrosse and that we needed to read the rule book.”

Davis and her partner that day, a veteran game official, halted play and tried to intervene. Parents added their voices, loudly.

“It got so bad,” Davis said, “that the other ref and I decided we had to call the game.”

She hasn’t picked up a whistle since. This summer she plans on waiting tables at a restaurant.

“I’ve never had anything like that happen before,” Davis said. “I was done.”

Her frustration is common. Seventy percent of game officials quit by the end of their third year, according to a 2017 survey conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials. More than half of the 17,000 respondents said they felt unsafe at least once while performing their job.

“It’s an issue of a shortage of officials and retainment of officials,” said Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, which governs high school sports in the state, “and it goes across every one of our activities.”

The MPA is concerned enough to be running recruitment advertisements on radio and on televised broadcasts of tournament basketball games. There’s a recruiting ad in the tournament program. Last month, the MPA distributed an opinion piece written by Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, to newspapers throughout the state.

The column – titled “Dear Mom and Dad: Cool it” – takes overbearing parents to task for verbal abuse of game officials, saying, among other things, that “yelling, screaming and berating the officials humiliates your child, annoys those sitting around you, embarrasses your child’s school and is the primary reason Maine has an alarming shortage of high school officials.”

LOOKING AT YOU, PARENTS

Barry Mano, founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials, said two factors are driving officials away. The first is low pay. The second is abusive behavior by fans or parents.

Nobody gets rich as a high school official in Maine, where the current fee structure for varsity games ranges from $56.50 for swimming to $75 for basketball, football, soccer, lacrosse and ice hockey, plus mileage. Still, it can provide a second income stream and in many sports also provides good exercise.

The big difference is how parents and fans have gone from simply booing a bad call – something Mano said is not the issue – to trashing officials on social media for a “bad” call and verbally and sometimes physically threatening officials.

“It’s very clear in that survey,” Mano said, “that the reason they don’t (officiate) is because of bad behavior and, specifically, the bad behavior of parents.”

The decline in game officials is not isolated to Maine. The body governing high school sports in Illinois reported a loss of nearly 2,000 registered officials since the 2010-11 school year. In Florida, there are 3,000 fewer registered officials than in 2010-11. Oregon saw a 12 percent decline over three years.

In Maine, the state with the oldest median population in the U.S., the age of referees and umpires is a major concern.

“There’s a huge issue with the graying of officials,” said Dennis Crowe of Gorham, a game official for four decades in basketball, soccer and softball. “I’m 60 years old, and I’m not even close to the oldest among the soccer officials.”

Crowe, the state’s rules interpreter for softball, said that sport has 35 high school umpires older than 70 but only 22 younger than 40. The average age is 57.

The state’s largest board of softball umpires – Western Maine – projects a 40 percent decline this spring from 10 years ago.

“Looking at the numbers now,” Crowe said, “I would say all middle school games and most JV games will have one official (instead of the usual two).”

Bob Wooten, treasurer of the Maine Association of Volleyball Officials, counts fewer than half a dozen officials younger than 30.

“People that age would much rather play than get yelled at,” Wooten said. “We’re going to have a critical shortage if this trend continues.”

‘THEY TRY TO EAT YOU ALIVE’

Maria Ebrahim of Falmouth has been officiating basketball games in Maine for 23 years. A former collegiate player at Villanova, she also mentors new officials, particularly young women.

“It’s a tough position to be in whether you’re male or female,” Ebrahim said of verbal abuse. “But if you’re a woman, they try to eat you alive. Even though we have tools at our disposal, it’s still very difficult – especially when you’re new – dealing with all that hatred coming at you.”

Ebrahim’s three daughters played high school basketball, as did her son. None of them wanted any part of officiating.

Roughly 40 percent of the games Ebrahim works are varsity boys, the rest varsity girls.

“I think everyone at the varsity level would love to get more games,” she said of referees. “It’s very competitive at that level.”

Beginning refs cut their teeth on middle school and sub-varsity games played most on weekday afternoons, long before the end of the typical 9-to-5 workday.

Chris Whitney, 38, a basketball ref from Brunswick, said it’s difficult for younger officials to move up in the rankings that determine varsity assignments. Test scores, attendance at Sunday night meetings in Gorham and partner ratings all factor into your ranking.

Whitney said that more flexibility, in the form of virtual meetings and online testing, could help with retention.

“They’ve made it so difficult for younger people to become officials,” he said. “Back in the day, refs used to be schoolteachers. If you have a job where you don’t get out until 5, are you going to use all your vacation time to go ref freshman basketball games?”

Regions of Maine are governed by their own boards of officials by sport. Each board has its own policies and procedures for assigning games. The MPA does not track the total number of registered officials, leaving that up to each sport’s local or regional boards. Data from those boards was used for this story.

Not every high school sport is hurting. Swimming and diving officials have held steady at 102 statewide, same as in 2009. Ice hockey is down and football up slightly. Volleyball and lacrosse are up a bit, but not enough to keep pace with the rising popularity of those sports, particularly in more rural regions.

There are signs that Maine is making progress to combat the referee shortage. The MPA’s Officials’ Advisory Committee assembled for the first time in the fall of 2017 and now meets three times per year. Since the MPA’s recruitment ads have started running, Burnham said he has received 25 to 30 inquiries from people wanting to find out more about becoming a game official.

YOUNG REFS SORELY NEEDED

And there’s evidence in the gyms. Cassandra Ray, 20, is a University of New England student in her second year as a licensed wrestling official after surviving a probationary season.

Ray is only a few years removed from her competitive career at Erskine Academy. Her college doesn’t offer wrestling and her schedule isn’t flexible enough to coach, so she became a referee.

“It was,” she said, “a great way to stay involved.”

On a Saturday last month, she officiated at a meet featuring wrestlers from nearly a dozen schools. When asked whether she is bothered by criticism flowing down from the bleachers, she smiled and gave a four-word explanation: “Thick skin, small ears.”

She excused herself. Another match was about to begin. Time to get back to work.

“She’s very calm, which is important,” said Patrick Casten of Wells, secretary for the statewide board of wrestling officials. “She acts like a professional. Treats it like a job. She’s a great ambassador for the sport.”

And Ray’s interest in becoming a ref comes none too soon. “Wrestling’s a dire situation in terms of numbers,” Casten said.

As for Davis, she is now a junior at the University of Southern Maine and a member of the lacrosse team. Her major is athletic training. Though soured on officiating, she said she is considering a return after her playing career ends.

“I loved it,” she said. “But I’ll probably do high school. I don’t think I’ll ever do younger kids again.”

Staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this report.

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

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