Call for help: Membership in Red River Valley Officials Association is shrinking, and unruly parents are partly to blame
Would you take a job knowing you'd be screamed at by strangers every time you showed up for work? Knowing you'd be called an idiot? Knowing your eyesight would be questioned? Knowing you'd be called incompetent?
In this economy, maybe you'd consider it.
But it's not likely.
Welcome to the problem faced by the Red River Valley Officials Association, the group of referees that officiates local junior high and senior high basketball games. The association has seen its membership get smaller and older in the last 10 years, a trend that could lead to a shortage of officials in coming years.
The problem? The association can't recruit young people into the profession.
The reason? The kids don't want to deal with the verbal abuse tossed at referees by overzealous fans.
"If I was 25, I don't know that I'd want to put up with the crap and nasty things that are said to you by otherwise rational people," said Mike Leier, who's been officiating for three years.
"I had one obnoxious parent, a woman, who was just screaming at me: 'You gotta call something! Are you blind? Call something! Do you know the rules?' She did it at one of those times when the gym is quiet and she was just a few feet away from me," Leier said. "Even at my age, and I've been around and been through the wars, it was very hurtful. If you're a younger guy, just getting started, I can see why you wouldn't want to put up with that."
Leier is a newcomer to officiating, but is an anomaly. He is almost 59 years old. After a lifetime of playing competitively in high school, college and amateur ball he was looking for a way to stay involved with the game. He enjoys working youth games, where he can teach players and give them a good experience.
"I'm having more luck with older guys like Mike. Those are the guys I'm getting into officiating these days," said Dave Klundt, a longtime local referee. "We're getting some college-aged kids, but not many."
But there are not many like Leier coming down the pike. And with a dearth of young officials coming up, the Red River Valley association is seeing its numbers dwindle. Klundt said the association is down to 70 members after being around 100 a decade ago. He estimated less than 10 percent are under 30 years old.
The pay is not significant enough to reverse the trend. Klundt said junior high officials get $23.50 a game; freshman, sophomore and junior varsity pay is $30 per game; and varsity officials are paid $60.
Klundt is not convinced abusive fans are the only thing keeping young people away from officiating. He cited burnout as another reason, saying summer travel teams mean youngsters are playing 70 or 80 games in a year.
"I just think by the time they get done with high school that they've had enough, they're burned out," Klundt said. "But I do believe some see how officials get treated and don't want to be a part of it. I definitely think that's a factor, one of the top couple of reasons."
Leier has no doubt it is the top reason.
"It is unpleasant. I've been involved in many uncomfortable situations," he said. "Even at the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade levels you can have toxic people. They are otherwise normal people, but they get in that situation and they become really difficult people to deal with."
Leier said most of the abuse comes from fans yelling about the rules, which only adds to officials' frustration because many of the fans don't know the rules.
"I am amazed they do what they do and they continue to do it," Moorhead High School athletic director Don Hulbert said. "It is disappointing to have officials feel like they are the enemy. That should never be the case."
The shrinking number of officials is a nationwide trend, according to Dave Carlsrud of the North Dakota High School Activities Association. Recruiting and retaining officials is an annual topic at national high school association meetings.
"The story around the country is the same: Kids through their playing days see the disrespect fans have for both officials and coaches - and even how fans yell at high school athletes - and they just don't want any part of that," Carlsrud said.
Everybody agrees the problem is caused by a loud minority of fans, sometimes just one or two people out of several dozen. Leier, in fact, said he officiated a tournament on a recent weekend in which there were no loudmouths. Nobody in the gym berated officials. Everybody supported the athletes.
Trouble is, it only takes one or two. It is the one bad apple theory in living color. That is enough to turn off young officials.
"When you think about it, why would you want to deal with that?" asked Carlsrud. "How would you like to go golfing and have somebody walk along with you and harangue you every time you hit a shot? Or ask you why did you hit that club? Or question every decision you make? Who needs that?"
More and more, the answer is: Not many.