It happens nearly once in every professional athletic competition.
A baseball coach tosses his hat to the ground in disgust over an out call. A football coach angrily charges at a referee to dispute a touchdown reception that is called back. A soccer coach's raised hands signify his disagreement with an offsides call. A tennis player berates a line judge or chair umpire.
On May 4, a 46-year-old part-time soccer referee in Utah died after a punch to the head from a 17-year-old goalie put him into a coma for a week.
While coaches say such violent outbursts haven't been a problem in Prince George's County high school competition, the national issue does bring awareness to a growing epidemic: a lack of appreciation for game officials.
“Umpires never get credited for a great job done,” Bowie High School softball coach Joe Sullivan said. “You just hear about the bad calls. I have the utmost respect for any official on the field. They're in control of the game. I've taken the [umpire certification] course. You and I can both read the rule and both come up with two different versions. I always told the girls to take the officials out of the equation, to just hit the ball, run the bases, make sure to get a good jump. But, yes, calls can impact a game.”
Referees and umpires must be thick-skinned, coaches agreed. And the verbal abuse coupled with under-appreciation is one of the main reasons local official's organizations are struggling to draw in the younger generations of high-level athletes who understand the nuances and are in tune to the evolution of their respective sports.
“The refs working now are the same refs that were working when I started 20 years ago,” said Haroot Hakopian, the girls soccer coach at Winston Churchill in neighboring Montgomery County. “I cannot tell you the last time I had a 20-something come to one of my games and reffing it. How do you replace the ref at some point? At one point or another, the body just can't keep up with the game, and there's no new blood coming in. The girls game alone has changed so much. You used to be able to give the not so good refs to the girls game because it didn't move that fast. Now it moves so fast, it's so much more athletic and moves so quick, sometimes it just passes [the refs] by.”
The Metropolitan Washington Soccer Referee Association is one of the officials' associations that serve Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association-member schools in the area. Three years ago, the organization introduced an evaluation system to ensure it is providing the best officials.
But MWSRA was stretched thin this year, Hakopian said. And that's with only providing two referees per game — that's all the county pays for — rather than the three that are truly necessary for efficient officiating.
Longtime umpire and the CASO Umpire Association's 14-year assignor Al Palmer, the MPSSAA softball rules interpreter, said a concerted effort to recruit new members made this year the first time in his tenure that he wasn't scrapping to cover games.
“They have 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds looking to get their certification [officiating] youth games. These are 8-year-old kids. I've gone to games, and I've gotten so physically uncomfortable with the way these 16- and 17-year-olds were being treated. A lot of the clubs are trying to have 'Silent Saturdays,' where you're not allowed to yell at the referee,” Hakopian said.
Added Henry A. Wise girls basketball coach Walter Clark: “I was at a [youth basketball game] Saturday and I'm watching this game and the spectators are giving those officials [a hard time]. There's got to be some way of [regulating] how far spectators are allowed to go a these kids' games.”
All game officials who work in Maryland state athletics must adhere to requirements provided by the MPSSAA.
In addition to being a member in good standing with a local MPSSAA recognized official's association, most of which have their own certification processes, referees and umpires must pass the National Federation's written rules examination — score 75 percent or higher — and attend an annual MPSSAA-sponsored rules interpretation clinic, according to the organization's website.
But no matter how experienced or credible a referee or umpire is, officiating is, ultimately, a judgment call within a given sport's rules and regulations.
The hardest part for players, coaches and parents to understand, Palmer said, is while they are invested in their respective teams, game officials' only allegiance is to the rules and regulations.
“We don't care who wins. We just want to see it done right. Sometimes we have to make a call that is very painful to a team, a safe call or out call, in soccer, give a penalty kick. Call back a touchdown. There are going to be close calls, and we make the best decision we can,” Palmer said.
Coaches agreed the first thing they look for in officiating is consistency among calls. And respect should be a two-way street. Coaches believe they are allowed to question calls, and if done in a respectful manner, should be given an explanation.
“That's my biggest pet peeve, sometimes officials, you can't talk to them. They're not open. Most of them, you can talk to them and they'll say to you, 'I've heard enough,' and you'll know when to back off. Others are less tolerant,” Clark said.
Officials could be the most important part of a competition, but lately they're rarely treated as such.
“People don't respect umpires enough. They think they can say whatever they want to them. I feel like with everything now on TV, these kids who play and parents see coaches run out and spew at refs. Soccer sees fans throwing things at officials and yelling and screaming,” said Louie Hoelman, who is the softball coach of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. “Most of the time [officials] are there out of the goodness of their heart because they enjoy the game and enjoy the kids, and it's a shame they're not appreciated.”