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Montana referee shortage directly linked to fan verbal abuse

Posted at 5:59 PM, Mar 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-04 14:11:11-05

Another weekend of tournament basketball is in the books. Thousands of fans packed into loud gyms over the past few weeks, but are they loud for the wrong reasons?

Last month, the Montana High School Association released an op-ed titled, ‘Dear Mom and Dad – Cool It,’ telling parents and fans to stop the growing trend of verbal criticism toward officials.

The article shows a number of nationwide stats that are eyebrow-raising, to say the least. According to the National Association of Sports Officials, more than 75 percent of all high school officials say adult behavior is the primary reason they quit, and 80 percent of all young officials quit after just two years.

One former Billings ref, Cedric Snelling, quit this year after 11 years of refereeing. When we asked why he stopped, he said it was a buildup of abuse that became too much after one specific incident.

“I made a correct ruling in the game via what the rule book would say. The crowd — and the head coach, for that matter — came down on me really hard,” said Snelling. “So to get verbally assaulted over something I knew I got right and to get told how terrible I was kind of set me off into, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

The farther east in Montana you go, the more it seems refs are needed.

“When I started 30 years ago we had 130 officials. In our Billings pool, we only have 50,” said longtime Billings official Mike Whittmeyer. “The eastern part of the state, we’re all struggling trying to not only recruit but then retain the officials that we get.”

Some places aren’t experiencing these problems. Missoula, for example, is a college town, and while it could always use more, it isn’t hurting.

“Locally here we’ve been pretty lucky,” said Missoula official Chris Anderson. “We draw off the University of Montana students a little bit so our numbers are pretty solid. We’re at about 85 bodies in our pool.”

But the Montana Officials Association has a hard time retaining them, and that can be due to parental verbal abuse.

“You know, if the parents would give those younger guys a break and help them, I think it would help us recruit and retain officials,” said Whittmeyer.

Most of the older refs we talked to had become used to the yelling and can almost tune it out or even make fun of it at this point.

“There’s a lot of good officials in the stands,” Whittmeyer joked.

But while that may be the case, Snelling says the abuse is worse the younger the kids are, making it harder to retain those first-time refs.

“For brand-new officials to go out and try to referee a lower level of basketball like grade school or junior high but yet get treated the worst of any level, is really hard,” said Snelling.

There aren’t many clear or new options that have been brought to the table, but Snelling says he thinks more defined consequences would help. And if you’re one of those parents or kids that finds yourself yelling at the refs or frustrated with the game, Whittmeyer says there are plenty of reffing spots still available.

If you want to take him up on his offer, you can sign up to be a licensed ref at www.HighSchoolOfficials.com. Remember, if there aren’t any referees, there won’t be any games.