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Morken: Flak for officials? I've seen it in this job

Tempers always run a little hotter in early March. I've come to expect that. The playoffs tend to bring that out of fans and coaches alike. I have watched enough basketball and covered enough games to realize that officials are going to take some...

Eric Morken
Eric Morken
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Tempers always run a little hotter in early March. I've come to expect that. The playoffs tend to bring that out of fans and coaches alike.

I have watched enough basketball and covered enough games to realize that officials are going to take some heat during any game, let alone one such as the Section 8AA semifinals that I was covering in Moorhead this past March.

The Osakis boys basketball team had just lost to Perham for the right to go to the section championship, and I was busy writing my story on press row as the final of the two games was going on. Generally, I'm able to block out the noise in these situations, but this one was different. Fans of one of the teams seemed especially angry with things not going their way. Of course, the officials were the scapegoat in a packed Moorhead High School gymnasium. Even the radio play-by-play guy for one of the teams sitting next to me was relaying to his audience how bewildered he was at the calls that night.

In between transcribing quotes and writing my story, I started to keep an eye on the game. Any time a whistle blew, there was the inevitable gasp from the crowd. It had gotten to the point where even if they were happy with the call, they were going to mock the officials for "finally getting one right."

By my unbiased eye, the officials were actually getting almost every call right that night.

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Covering games with no emotional attachment to who wins or loses has given me a new perspective on officiating. Do refs make mistakes? Of course. But I have a lot of video and photographic evidence over the years to suggest they are right in their calls much more than they are wrong. But right or wrong often gets thrown by the wayside in sports.

Last Friday, our Echo Press reporter, Micah Friez, wrote a story on a referee shortage that is hitting youth sports across the state, including around this area. Over the past seven years, the number of officials at the Minnesota State High School League level has dropped by 500.

Brandon-Evansville activities director Nate Meissner said there is no doubt that they are in an officiating crunch, saying it's hard to get officials for every B-E event. He did not feel fan abuse played as big a role in losing officials as he felt it was a matter of younger adults just not going into officiating. They are finding other things to do after coming out of college, he said.

Meissner has a good feel for this issue. He has reffed many sports himself, both at the high school and college level. His dad, Harold Meissner, has been officiating for decades.

I have no doubt Meissner is right that there are not as many young adults who want to commit the time and effort to officiating. People are pulled in so many directions, especially when their own kids are involved.

I also believe that some of the stuff I have seen over the years of covering athletics plays a huge role in driving many officials from the job or prevents them from ever getting in.

Some people are built to withstand verbal abuse that comes from the stands. Some aren't. That is especially the case down at the younger age levels. Why would anyone want to officiate for peanuts when it means getting berated by an angry parent?

Alexandria assistant principal for activities Robert Brakke said Alexandria does not have that hard of a time right now finding officials for varsity events, but that changes when it comes to finding refs for middle school and lower-level high school games.

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"They aren't MSHSL certified officials and feel it's not worth it to be berated by mostly parents when all they are trying to do is help out," Brakke said. "The pay for lower level officials isn't much. Soon we will have a tough time finding officials at the varsity level in Alex, too."

That's the way the state is trending. Brakke said the message he is hearing from the MSHSL over the past few years is that fan abuse is the primary reason for the drop in officials.

Eventually, it's going to affect the kids' ability to play the game, and already has in some cases. Alexandria is hosting the Willmar girls soccer team twice this season because they are having a harder time finding officials in Willmar for their home games. Youth sports in some states across the country are having to be canceled or postponed because of the referee shortage. Maybe actually not being able to play the game will finally wake some people up.

I have seen an umpire in a Resorters League baseball game be called "f---ing garbage" by a player as they walked off the field. I have listened to constant verbal abuse during some high school games and looked at others working a scorer's table only to have us agree that you could not pay us enough to officiate.

Most refs at the youth level are doing this because it's their way of staying involved in the sports they grew up loving. They want to do a good job, and almost always do.

Do they screw up sometimes? Everyone does, and I have talked with enough officials to know that most expect to take some flak from the fans. Too often, though, it crosses the line.

In it for the money?

All officials at the varsity level of sports must be certified officials and the pay they receive for games varies.

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Alexandria assistant principal for activities Robert Brakke said in his short time as AD for the Cardinals, he has seen officials' fees increase. "And we are somewhat at their mercy," he said.

Brakke said a shortage of baseball and softball umpires at the lower high school levels has forced them to pay certified officials to ump junior varsity games, as well. Officials for events at the lower age levels in middle school will make anywhere from $22.50 to $50, depending on the sport.

Here is a look at the cost associated with finding officials for some of the high school sports in Alexandria:

Volleyball - $90-100 per official, refereeing both JV and varsity games

Football - About $96 per official for varsity

Basketball - About $110 per official, refereeing both JV and varsity games

Baseball - $150 per umpire for JV and varsity

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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