Searching for the Next Generation of Referees

By Beacon Staff

In his nearly 30 years of toiling in cramped gymnasiums and on muddy baseball diamonds, Chuck Grant never expected anybody to celebrate referee appreciation day.

Having chosen to participate in a relentlessly criticized trade, Grant knew the score. People would be angry with him. Often. That wasn’t the point – the point, he said, was the kids. And not to mention, like other referees, he loves sports.

Grant retired 11 years ago. While his tenure of almost three decades isn’t common, it’s not unheard of either. Many officials have been around for 15 to 20 years or more, refereeing games for multiple generations of families.

But a dilemma is fast approaching – the old-timers are gearing up for retirement and the younger folks aren’t rushing to fill their shoes. Statewide officiating numbers are currently holding steady overall, but sports like wrestling and football are seeing measurable declines.

“Now it’s time to pass the baton to somebody and we’re going, ‘Whoa, there’s nobody standing there,’” said Dave Reese, a basketball official of 19 years.

Mark Beckman, director of the Montana High School Association and commissioner of the Montana Officials Association, said the officiating community is preparing for the transition.

“We do understand that that’s coming, especially with those officials who are at that 15- or 20-year mark and are thinking about retiring,” Beckman said. “We’re working hard to recruit and retain officials. That’s on our agenda every meeting.”

Long-time referees like Reese, Randy Saunier and Todd Fiske are doing their part, more than ever, to pound the pavement in search of new officials. Yet their efforts have been met, in a growing number of cases, with reluctance from a demographic that seems disinterested with taking up the whistle.

Part of it is practical – they don’t want to subject themselves to unending ridicule. Or, as Saunier says, “they don’t want someone screaming for their death. They don’t want that in their lives.” Part of it is cultural – there are plenty of other ways today for people to stay actively engaged with their sports of choice. In general, younger folks are choosing to pass their free time differently.

“I started out umping in little league – it was the thing to do,” Beckman said.

Another part of it, Saunier says, is negative perception, fueled by an influx of troubling headlines over the last decade about referee assaults or games played in empty gyms because of escalating tension between spectators and officials. While Montana hasn’t experienced conflicts of this nature, people still read the news, Saunier said.

There are 1,658 officials sanctioned by the MOA this year, not including the small number of spring softball umpires who haven’t yet been counted. That figure is slightly less than the previous three-year average of 1,694.

Officials get paid $55 for all varsity events and $33 for sub-varsity contests, making Montana one of a few states with a standardized payment system. They receive a per-diem compensation for travel expenses and those who are selected to officiate at out-of-area postseason tournaments are given lodging money.

To become a MOA-sanctioned official, applicants must pay $60 to register for their first sport and then $30 per sport after that. Then they take a test. The MOA is holding one of its three annual testing days on March 23. That day will be reserved for softball officials, Saunier said. The tests for football, soccer and volleyball are held in August and the exams for basketball and wrestling are in December.

The small stipend referees receive is nice, but it’s hardly the reason they do what they do. Most officials participate in the sports of their youth. A former basketball player who isn’t quite ready to give up his love of the game finds opportunity in refereeing. It’s a way to stay connected to their youth, while helping shape today’s youth. Saunier said he doesn’t mind the physical conditioning either.

“It’s certainly not about the money,” said Saunier, who is the northwest regional director for MOA. “It’s about staying close to the sport you really love, being part of it and having the best seat in the house.”

Deep into retirement, Grant still talks warmly about the kids. He said he could block out heckling fans and coaches, but had difficulty not “getting caught up in the emotions of the players.” Unlike many referees, Grant didn’t stick to one sport or one age group. He didn’t care much about officiating big tournaments either. He was just as happy refereeing elementary school basketball as he was umpiring high school baseball.

“This was really my feeling: I was there to help the kids,” Grant said. “If they were small, help them to understand the game. If they were big, help them to enjoy the game.”

The same issues that exist today between fans, coaches, players and referees have been prevalent for decades, though Reese said “it’s gotten a little more venomous.” What Saunier semi-jokingly refers to as “death threats” are inevitable byproducts of the competitive arena, no matter what the era is.

Grant, a self-professed “smart alec,” said he used humor to diffuse – or perhaps egg on – potential confrontations with coaches. Once he told a coach who seemed confused over a call: “Two dollars and fifty cents will get you a rule book and I’ll come over Tuesday and explain it you.” Another time at a football game, Grant reprimanded a coach for using questionable language and the coach denied the profanities.

“Well, if you didn’t do it,” Grant told him, “then you better find that guy in the stands that’s in sync with your lips, because he’s going to cost you some yardage.”

During the game, referees learn to largely block out the crowd noise. But sometimes, post-game encounters occur. Though no incidents ever escalated to a physical altercation for Grant, he does recall one time when he exited the locker room after a game and found a disgruntled fan waiting for him. Words were exchanged, but nothing more. Down the hall, another man was waiting. Again, nothing happened. Then Grant ran into a third fan who stood tall, but stood still.

“I guess he figured if those two guys down there aren’t going to take on this old man, then I’m not either,” Grant said.

Officials have a tight camaraderie, bonded by their common interests, long travels together and a learned understanding of the game – its rules and its culture. They even understand the fans, with Grant conceding, “I’ve even yelled at a couple of referees” as a spectator.

“I would equate it to police officers or being in the military,” Saunier said. “You’re with the guys quite a bit and you’ve got their back.”

There are positive signs for the new generation. Saunier said there were six new officials during the last basketball season in his region and he’s optimistic about the determined recruiting efforts. Grant certainly recommends the job.

“I enjoyed all that I did,” Grant said, “and I’m proud of it.”

For more information on testing days or any other questions, call Randy Saunier at 755-5666 or call the MHSA at (406) 442-6010.

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