Call the National Association of Sports Officials and a recorded message tells you to press 2 for membership renewal — and 3 for insurance and assault information.
That sounds more Saturday Night Live than Friday Night Lights, except that the early part of this high school football season has seemed like open season on officials, most notably in San Antonio. That’s where two players launched themselves into the body of an official this month — video of which has been viewed more than 7 million times on YouTube — and where another player on a different team shoved an official eight days later.
“I wouldn’t want to connect those dots and call it a trend,” NASO founder and president Barry Mano told USA TODAY Sports Tuesday. “But it is concerning. What we know is that now, when these things happen, there’s video and everyone can see it.”
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Video of the blindside hits in the first incident have been played over and over on national news broadcasts. One player hits umpire Robert Watts from behind, knocking him to the ground, and a second player spears him, diving helmet first into his body.
“Robert Watts is one of our members,” Mano says. “I talked to him the other night. He goes out to work a game, with his wife and eight-week-old daughter at home, to make 70 bucks or something. I don’t know the exact figure, but these guys don’t do this for the money. They do it for love of the game.”
The players, who are minors, were ejected from that game at Marble Falls High and suspended from the team and from John Jay High. The players accused Watts of racial slurs. Mano says he has looked into that and “we have no evidence at all than any racial slurs were used.” The player in the second incident was thrown off the St. Anthony’s team and suspended from school for three days.
“I just cringe,” former Mississippi high school official Tom Rice says of the first incident. “It could have paralyzed the official, given him a concussion, it could have even killed him. It would be my hope that these players would be banned for life from any athletic event.”
Mano says he is surprised at the recent public outcry on the issue of officials’ safety given that a pair of tragic incidents since 2013 did not generate as much national attention. Two soccer officials died, one in an adult league in Michigan and one in a youth league in Utah, after blows to the head from angry athletes.
“Those happened within 17 months of each other,” Mano says. “This thing in Texas outstrips that for all of the attention it is getting. Why, when we had two deaths? I think the reason is clear — video.”
When a Michigan man was sentenced to eight to 15 years for involuntary manslaughter in March, the wife of the official who died raised her left arm holding a red card — symbolic completion of her husband’s attempt to issue one the summer before.
Mano estimates there are 450,000 officials who work athletic events in the USA. He says his organization has 22,000 members. For $103, Mano says, members get insurance as well as Referee magazine. He says when he founded the organization in 1980 that the insurance covered liability. Six or seven years ago, he says, assault coverage was added: “That was never on our radar screen” back in the 1980s.
The insurance covers officials at any athletic event other than pickup games. “We don’t care who sanctions it,” he says. “Rec leagues and youth leagues are where some of the biggest need is.”
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Mano says it is important to note that physical assaults on officials are rare. Thomas Brush, an attorney in Charleston, S.C., who has been a high school football referee for 32 years, says the same of South Carolina.
“I may know of one instance in 32 years where a player attacked a referee and the athlete was suspended from high school sports for life,” Brush says. “We don’t have any real issues. The kids are the easy part. I tell referees to just stay away from the parents.”
Craig Anderson, assistant executive director for the Illinois High School Association, oversees the state’s officials. He says poor sportsmanship shown by fans, coaches and players sometimes makes it hard to recruit and retain referees.
“In football, there are portions of our state that do struggle to find officials,” Anderson says. “Just last week, I got a couple of calls from schools that needed crews. We are short enough that some administrators are talking about moving games to Thursday so that there will be enough referees.”
He says there are many factors in the shortage, “but the leading cause, if I were to poll officials, is just poor sportsmanship.” People have to realize, Anderson says, that amateur events are refereed by amateur officials.
“We’ll have some fans who get unruly,” he says, “but never physical. … It’s an amateur football game worked by amateur officials and there are going to be mistakes by officials, coaches and players. We just have to learn to understand that.”
“Kill the ump” is a cry that harkens to the early days of baseball. There was a 1950 comedy called Kill the Umpire. But Mano says that’s one phrase he hasn’t heard in public for many years. “It’s no joke anymore,” he says.
Contributing: Courtney Cronin of the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger and Niraj Warikoo of the Detroit Free Press