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Verbal abuse blamed for decline in officials

Parents, coaches and spectators target umps, refs and other officials, leading to a drop in the number of those willing to do the job.

High school sports umpires, referees and officials on Long Island are being targeted for verbal abuse as never before by parents, spectators and coaches. This has led to a decline in their ranks, more than two dozen coaches, referees, umpires and school administrators said in interviews. (Credit: Newsday / Casey Musarra, Yeong-Ung Yang; Patrick McCarthy)

Ed Wallace, a longtime football and boys lacrosse official, dreads leaving the field after games and sometimes requests an escort to his car.

Soccer and softball umpire Tom Cully said parents routinely call him names he is too embarrassed to repeat.

One middle school girls lacrosse official broke down in tears on the field during a game last season because she was being yelled at by spectators.

High school sports umpires, referees and other officials on Long Island are being targeted for verbal abuse as never before by parents, spectators and coaches, which has led to a decline in their ranks, more than two dozen coaches, referees, umpires and school administrators said in interviews. Statistics from Nassau and Suffolk counties show that there has been a steep drop in the number of people willing to officiate since 2011-12.

School administrators said the decline is creating scheduling "nightmares" and that some middle school sports that usually have two officials are getting only one.

“Just because we’re out on the sports field doesn’t give you the right to scream and yell at me in a way you wouldn’t anywhere else,” Wallace said. “Maybe the call was wrong. Absolutely, no one is perfect. But it doesn’t give you the right to turn around and scream and yell at us.

“That is absolutely the number one reason for decline of officials, the abuse that they receive from both coaches and parents.”

The increasingly volatile behavior directed at referees and umpires on the Island and elsewhere in the nation is reflective of societal changes, said Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials. Social media platforms such as Twitter have ratcheted up the tone and tenor of commentary, especially when users can remain anonymous, he said.

“Sports is life with the volume turned up,” Mano said. “In regular life, think about it, are you leading a quieter life than you did 15 years ago? Are there less arguments, less in-your-face stuff, less willingness to accept an opinion than the old days? The answer to all of those is no.

“If sports is life with the volume turned up, then why are we surprised by all this?”

Alex Flyntz, 77, who has been a baseball umpire for 40 years, said the verbal abuse is worse than ever.

“Parents used to be able to say something to umpires, raise their voice here and there,” Flyntz said. “But today they’re aggressive about it. The umpire suddenly becomes the villain, and you’re picking on this kid.”

Parents have invested time and money in their children’s athletics, often in pursuit of a college scholarship, said Robert Zayas, executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.

“They have more invested in sports than they ever have before,” he said. “And I think that’s what sometimes leads to the unruly behavior. I think that adds to the issue of having such a hard time when they think their son or daughter was wronged by an official.”

Scheduling nightmares

A Newsday analysis of the number of referees, umpires and officials in Nassau and Suffolk this year, compared with seven years ago, shows the pool is shrinking. Nassau and Suffolk publish lists of officials each year. Suffolk County’s list counts referees who do multiple sports only once. Nassau County’s list counts referees for each sport they officiate. For example, a person who officiates football, basketball and lacrosse would be counted three times in Nassau, but once in Suffolk.

In the 2011-12 school year, Nassau County listed 2,403 officials. This school year, the number is down to 2,100, a drop of 303. Over seven years, Nassau is losing an average of about 43 officials  a year.

In Suffolk, the number of officials was 1,301 in the 2011-12 school year. The number fell to 1,127 in 2018-19, a drop of 174. Suffolk is losing an average of about 25 officials a year over the seven-year span.

Administrators in Nassau and Suffolk stressed that these figures represent the entire pool of referees, not necessarily those who are actively taking assignments, so the number of available officials is smaller.

While the drop is affecting all 20 sports played in both counties, sports such as field hockey, girls lacrosse and gymnastics have reached ‘crisis’ levels because the number of officials was already small, according to Pat Pizzarelli, the head of Nassau County high school sports.

“We cannot cover all games with officials,” he said, which forces the county to schedule games on different days and use fewer than the required number of officials for middle school games.

Tom Combs, the head of Suffolk County high school sports, said scheduling has become, “a headache. It’s a nightmare.”

“In some sports we base our schedules on the number of officials available,” Combs said.

Some of the biggest overall declines are in baseball and basketball. Basketball used to schedule the bulk of its games on the same day, but both counties have been forced to spread the games out so there are enough referees.

Nassau County has lost 64 boys basketball referees since 2011-12, according to the lists submitted to the county. This year there were 284, down from 348 seven years ago. Nassau County has 92 fewer baseball umpires than it did seven years ago. This year there are 163 umpires in Nassau, compared with 255 in 2011-12.

Maureen Allmendinger, president of Suffolk’s girls lacrosse officials association, said there are 86 officials this year, down from 110 three years ago.

Overwhelming abuse

Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials, said a national survey of more than 17,000 referees in 2017 found that in excess of 70 percent of new officials quit within three years because of verbal abuse.

The average age of a starting referee in the 2017 survey was 42, compared with 18 in the 1972, Mano said.

“We’re a graying industry,” he said. “We’re not bringing many young people in. And the ones we do bring in, we’re not keeping.”

Lou Mayr, 52, is a retired New York City police officer who is in his second year of officiating middle school girls lacrosse games. He said he used to coach his daughter, and “I did give refs a hard time.” He said he didn’t think he would be bothered by the spectators but admits it’s been more difficult than he had thought.

“I was a cop for 21 years,” Mayr said. “People have been yelling at me for a long time. I know what it’s like to have been in stressful situations. Still, no one likes to be yelled at. No one likes to be challenged. No official makes a bad call on purpose.”

In the past, school administrators said the biggest hurdle to recruiting referees was that games are played during the afternoon, when many people are working.

Brian LeBlanc, 23, is in his fourth year officiating boys lacrosse games. He played lacrosse in high school and has tried to get some of his former teammates to give officiating a try.

“They say they’re not sure they want to do it,” LeBlanc said. “It’s never about the hours or pay. It’s the abuse from the stands.”

Referees are paid based on the sport and the level of competition. In baseball, for example, an umpire makes $87.50 for a middle school game, $105 for a junior varsity game and $124 for a varsity game. Wrestling officials are the highest paid at the varsity level, at $132, while fencing is the lowest, at $107.

Getting started as a referee costs about $200, which includes getting certified, association fees, fingerprinting from the state and buying uniforms. Potential officials must take a course and pass a test to become certified.

“Young people don’t want to be abused,” said Eric Sanders, 62, a longtime field hockey, soccer, basketball and lacrosse referee. “This is not just us, not just here. It’s happening everywhere. It’s a national epidemic.”

Punishing offenders

Referees, umpires and officials can eject coaches and spectators from games. A coach who is ejected is automatically suspended for the next game. If a spectator is ejected, it is up to the school district to determine any further discipline. Referees would like to see schools take more responsibility for controlling and disciplining unorderly fans. Pizzarelli and Combs said they expect school districts to punish fans who are ejected from games by suspending them from attending the next game.

“It’s the school’s athletic administrator’s responsibility to control their fans,” Pizzarelli said.

There were 23 coaches and six spectators ejected from games during the fall and winter sports seasons this school year. Spring season figures have not been tabulated yet. Boys soccer had the most ejections, with seven coaches and two spectators, followed by boys basketball with seven coaches and one spectator ejection.

“We need to have these rules in place, unfortunately, to calm people down from going crazy,” Combs said.

Game officials are divided on how to best handle unruly coaches, parents and spectators. Some said they prefer to address bad behavior quickly so it doesn’t get worse. Others said they are hesitant to eject spectators or coaches because they are concerned it will increase tension.

“I had an incident in softball last year in which I had a father yelling and screaming and I stopped the game,” said Tom Cully, a longtime boys soccer and softball official. “He said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said your time here is going to be limited because you’re going to go.

“But I get it. A lot of people don’t want to do that. Listen, I’m 6-5 and 220 pounds. I’m not the type of guy that’s going to be nervous. Most [umpires] take it and then it can get out of control. I try to nip it before other people get involved in it.”

Too much to bear

While physical altercations are rare, referees said the possibility is always on their minds.

Basketball referee Michael Palumbo, 45, said a parent shoved him to the ground during a timeout a few years ago because he was not happy that a foul wasn’t called on a play in which his son was hurt. Cully, 59, said he was punched in the groin after a tense playoff game several years ago in the parking lot by a father who was upset by a series of calls against his son’s team.

“He blamed us for the kids losing,” Cully said.

The tension and abuse takes a toll, especially on new officials.

“We had an official crying on the field last year, a brand-new official crying because she was getting yelled at by the parents and coaches,” said Allmendinger, 61, president of Suffolk’s girls lacrosse officials association.

The scene, she said, occurred at a game being played by seventh- and eighth-graders. That official — one of only a handful of new ones in Suffolk girls lacrosse last year — decided not to return for this season.

Wallace, the football and boys lacrosse official, said he has developed a thick skin after 14 years of officiating. After a recent lacrosse game, Wallace said, he was putting his equipment back into his car when a group of people drove by and yelled an obscenity at him about his officiating performance.

“That’s when I had to ask myself,” he said, “is this what I need to be doing on my Friday night?”

OFFICIALS’ PAY

The per-game pay rates for referees, umpires and officials for school sporting events on Long Island:

Baseball, Basketball, Boys Lacrosse, Girls Lacrosse, Soccer, Softball

Varsity: $124

Junior varsity: $105

Middle school: $87.50

Fencing

Varsity: $107

Junior varsity: $93

Middle school: $87.50

Field Hockey

Varsity: $116

Junior varsity: $98

Middle school: $83

Football

Varsity: $127

Junior varsity: $107

Middle school: $87.50

Gymnastics

Varsity: $124

Middle school: $96

Swimming

Varsity: $112.50

Middle school: $87

Track

Varsity: $124

Middle school: $89

Wrestling

Varsity: $132

Junior varsity: $105

Middle school: $87.50

Volleyball

Varsity (3 out of 5 games): $110.50

Junior varsity (3 games): $95.50

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