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The Risks For Refs: Heckling, Finger-Pointing And Sometimes Worse


This is an example of a disturbing scene emerging in high school sports.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Another - oh - he just hit the referee. He just hit the referee.


The football season is just starting, but already there've been two high-profile attacks on high school referees, both in San Antonio. The one you just heard was far less jarring than one a week earlier in which two high school football players targeted a ref during a game, one tackling him to the ground, the other one diving at him with his helmet. The reasons for the incident aren't entirely clear. There's been a lot of finger-pointing. And we wondered what other officials are making of these incidents. NPR's Nathan Rott spent a Friday night with an officiating crew in Southern California - another football hotbed - to find out.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: This is what it's like to be a referee.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hey, you mediocre guys - no pressure now, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah, we're mediocre, like Richard Sherman.

MAN #2: You guys are all right. No pressure.

TIM VARNADO: Yeah, we're just mediocre.

ROTT: Tim Varnado has been a referee in Los Angeles County for 15 years so he's used to being heckled, even on the walk out to the field. On the field at Chatsworth High School, it's more of the same.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER #2: It's holding against the Crusaders.

ROTT: The game is close for the first half, but by the third quarter, the home Chatsworth Chancellors start pulling away.


ROTT: The visiting team coaches who are livid during the first half - yelling at officials and angrily pointing fingers - start to quiet down. Visiting team dad, Steve Lovett, does not.

STEVE LOVETT: Let's go team. Make something happen.

ROTT: Though very little of his yelling has been directed at the refs.

What do you think about the refs?

LOVETT: I think that refs have a very tough job. I think that people are very demanding of them.

ROTT: More demanding, Lovett says, than ever before.

LOVETT: Yes, absolutely.

ROTT: Why?

LOVETT: I think - three reasons. One is, when you watch professional football, they actually educate you about the calls.

ROTT: So everyone who's watched a football game on slow-motion replay now thinks they're an expert on the rules and what constitutes a foul. The second reason, he says, is that the sport has changed. There are new rules for players' safety and offenses are playing faster football. The third...

LOVETT: Look at the people that are around. They blame the refs for everything. You know? It can't be the loss of their kid or their team.

ROTT: So it must be the fault of the refs.

CYD ZEIGLER: Half the stands were for one team and half the stands were for the other team.

ROTT: This is official Cyd Zeigler back in the locker room after the game.

ZEIGLER: Nobody is cheering for the referees and everybody views the third team as the enemy.

ROTT: Tim Varnado says that's just part of being a ref.

VARNADO: No dog likes the postman, and the dog didn't even know why. If you ask half the dogs, why you don't like the postman? They don't know. People bark at their officials. Ask them, why you bark at officials? I don't know. Because he's wearing a striped shirt. We're not coming in there to be liked. You know, we know we're not liked, you know, but at the same time, respect the game.

ROTT: And respect the officials who come with it. Nelson Bae for one, thinks that respect for officials is what's being lost.

NELSON BAE: Look at what Clint Dempsey, a U.S. national team player, did this summer by taking the card and ripping it up in front of the ref and throwing it in his face, or the San Antonio incident or - you know, you can just do a quick Google search of attacks on referees, and you'll see greater instances of that line that is broken.

ROTT: Whether that line is actually being broken more or it's just getting recorded more, Bay doesn't know. But either way, he says...

BAE: The more people see it, the more people accept it.

ROTT: And that's something that worries everyone in this locker room.

VARNADO: We are unprotected. That's why we leave together.

ROTT: Because after a contested game, there's no cop or school administrator or crowd to keep a hot-head player or parent from doing something rash. But it's not just their own safety that they're worried about, Varnado says. They're worried about the future of the sport they all love.

VARNADO: I mean, you have to want to do this. This is not something you can say, well, I'm going to go get paid ' cause you're - this is some hard money sometimes, some nights. It's very hard money, very little money, for what you have to put up with.

ROTT: And they fear fewer people will be willing to do it. Across the country, from Minnesota to Florida, to even football-crazy Texas, high school sports leagues and associations have been having a hard time recruiting enough officials to ref all the games that are played. And it's not just for football. The reasons are the same - low pay, long hours, bad treatment from players, fans and coaches. Bay says, if you add safety to that list...

BAE: There will be fewer of us doing this on Friday nights. If there are fewer of us doing this Friday nights, who's going to referee these games?

VARNADO: Yeah. If we step off the football field, you have no game. There is no game without us.

ROTT: All five of the officials nod their head. They finish changing and packing up their stuff, and then they all leave as a group to their cars. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.