Previous month:
July 2019

January 2020

Dealing with Referees and Umpires

An athlete who runs in a race cannot win the prize unless he obeys the rules.

--2 Timothy 2:5 (GNT)

“Sports is a great way to teach kids. It’s like life on steroids.” --Jim Minton 

“. . .40 years ago, you were taught one thing at the home and it was reinforced in the school. . . and that is respect. Respect for your parents, respect for teachers, respect for elderly, respect for women, respect for law.” --Coach Lou Holtz

Once during a Pride game, a change-up was delivered to me that I thought was a little high, but the ump decided it was strike three. I turned around, looked him straight in the eye and said in my outdoor voice, “That was atrocious!” When I got back to the dugout, one of my teammates commented that he’d never heard me cuss before.

I am not sure that “atrocious” counts as a cuss word, and I’m pretty confident that I didn’t say anything else along with it. However, I know that I wasn’t very nice. (Later on, a fellow church member who was in the stands that night asked me, “How did you come up with atrocious?” I responded that I just started running through the dictionary in my brain, and that was the first word I came to.)

For the next 20 years, I watched that umpire working at my kids’ games, and I would always think about this incident.

I think sports is a great way to learn about life. It’s important to learn to work hard, compete hard and give it everything you have, in order to be a winner. If you don’t play a game by the rules, it probably won’t be much of a game. It’s also important to learn that if you don’t play by the rules, there are consequences.

Once again it amazes me that the Bible, written 2,000 years ago, addresses this in 2 Timothy. It says you can’t be a winner, unless you play by the rules.

Somewhere during my sports life, I learned to respect umpires and referees. I saw a cartoon that hit home; it said, “The trouble with umpires is, they don’t care who wins.” I came to realize that there was always going to be some tension, because I cared who the winner would be and the official didn’t. However, I became comfortable with the fact that I had one agenda and the umpire had another.

One umpire told me that his job was to make sure the game is played safely and fairly, not to get every call right. We would all like for officials to be accurate on every call, but as long as humans are doing the job, that isn't going to happen. You aren't going to find a guy who eats carrots every day to work a 5th grade basketball game. ~ 100 ~


What do you call a game with no umpires? That is a pickup game, not a true championship.

There are plenty of stories on the internet of fans gone wild. In 2017, referee Jake Higgins made some calls in the NCAA tournament that some Kentucky basketball fans didn’t like. 

Those fans went on the website of Higgins’ full-time business, a roofing company, and posted reviews trashing his integrity. They left 885 one-star reviews, which dropped his company rating to 2.1 out of 5 stars.

It wasn’t about Higgins’ roofing abilities. The reviews were focused on his refereeing abilities and how these fans wanted revenge for calls they didn’t like.

Great basketball coach John Wooden said, “You are not a loser until you blame someone else.” You must learn to focus on the things you can control. If a referee makes a bad call, it is one thing to voice your opinion in a respectful way. It is another when you act rudely, like many people that we have all witnessed.

I remember watching a coach that I respect go out to argue a call. It was an important game, and two calls in a row had gone against his team. His line was, “Just once, just once, could we get one of these 50/50 calls?”

I am sure what he really wanted to say was something like: “You are blind as a bat! Don’t you need a dog out here, to help you get around? I thought only horses slept standing up. Is this your cell phone? - Because it has three missed calls! You call more strikes than a union delegate. You’re making more bad calls than a telemarketer. Bernie Madoff has more integrity than you. You need to go back to your job as a lookout on the Titanic. Now I understand why you and the other manager look so much alike! You may not be the worst ump in the world, but when that guy dies. . . Blue, it’s a strike zone, not an end zone!” (These are just a few of what I’ve heard over the years.)

I had a buddy who was a college referee. He wore glasses most of the time, so the first time I saw him working, I was surprised that he was wearing contacts. I asked him about it, and he replied that wearing glasses was just too easy a target.

My experience at the Lutheran School has been that we Christians could do a much better job of respecting the authority of the officials.

My wife and I once went to a really exciting high school basketball game between a couple of the public schools. Each team kept going on 15-point runs. Just when you thought one team ~ 101 ~


was going to run away with it, the other team would come right back. It was an awesome game. Yet what do we remember most about it? The lady right behind us who was yelling at the referee, pleading with him to be fair. During the entire second half, it was difficult to enjoy this incredible game, because of all the whining and complaining coming from behind us.

It amazes me what I hear when I go to a game where I don’t care who wins. I will see some friends rooting for one team and ask them about the game. Their response is, “The refereeing has been so bad. Every call has gone against us.” Later, I’ll sit with someone who is rooting for the other team and ask them how things are going. Their response? “The refereeing has been so bad. Every call has gone against us!”

I hope we realize that can’t be.

It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It amazes me how people can go to game after game and focus on the people officiating the game. Yes, it would be nice if we had more accurate officiating. Yes, there are times that refs have a bad approach towards a certain team. But if you don’t have refs, it is just a pick-up game. We can’t have a true winner unless someone is enforcing the rules of the game.

It’s crazy how sometimes we can look at a play from nine different angles, and from two or three the player looks safe and from the rest of them he looks out. At most levels, umpires don’t have the benefit of instant replay; they have to call it like they see it in the moment. However, major league umpires do get graded against a computer strike zone on balls and strikes that they call. So at that level, there is an attempt to measure what the quality is of the officiating.

As a catcher for close to 20 years, I got to spend a lot of time with umpires. Most of them were pretty good guys. They were giving up their time to make a little bit of money and serve the game. We are hearing now about a shortage of umpires, and the day may come when that is a concern.

Sometimes, you had umpires that were having bad days or just didn’t feel very well. I remember coaching one of Kurtis’ games in Champaign, and the umpire was having some struggles. When I had a little discussion with him, it came out that it was his thirteenth game of the weekend. I guess he had a pretty good excuse for not being able to see straight. It’s easy to say that is ridiculous, and a guy shouldn’t work that many games. But I expect his goal was to make as much money as possible for his family, so he was willing to push the limits of his capabilities.

It took me to while to realize that, just as with any other sort of communication, the best approach with an official is the honest approach. When he calls ball four on a pitch that you think is strike three, try saying, “Oh, man! I thought we had one there. You thought it stayed ~ 102 ~


low, huh?” Using a discussion tone, as opposed to an insulting tone, shows you are questioning the call, not his integrity.

If a 1-2 pitch was on the outside corner and got called a ball, I might say something like, “Oh, that was a good pitch. Maybe not a strike, but sure a good pitch.”

When it comes down to winning a game, it may be difficult to get a favorable call at the end, if you have been laying into the ref on every call throughout the game. Some coaches say they are lobbying early in the game to get that call towards the end, but I can’t see that happening if you have soured the ref. John Wooden said it best: “When we disagree, do we have to be disagreeable?” But in the heat of the game, it is very easy to forget that.

Let’s go back to the coach I mentioned earlier, who said he wasn’t getting the 50/50 calls. He disagreed with the call in a way that was less disagreeable. Instead of insulting the umpire’s abilities and integrity, the coach made his point without trying to deliver a lethal blow.

After the game was over, the team wanted to complain about how the umpiring had cost them the big game. The coach would not have any of it. He said, “We are never going to blame an umpire for losing a game. We must focus on what we can control.”

When Kurtis was playing basketball in high school, websites were starting up where you could log in and watch the game tape. More times than not, it appeared that the calls evened out. The official might miss a travel by the opposing team, but then later it slides by when your guy knocks the ball out of bounds and it is awarded to your team. It is always hard when the last call goes against you, even if you have been getting the better end throughout most of the game.

Sometimes, I think it is good to expect that things are not going to go your way. That way, you are prepared when you have to overcome obstacles. If you are expecting challenges, you won’t be as surprised when they happen, so you’re ready to deal with them. As a team, you have to try not to be in a position where the umpire has a chance to decide the outcome of a game. Because half the time, it is going to go your way, but half the time, it isn’t.

One of the most important things that we learn from this interaction with umpires is to respect authority.