Officiating should not be a matter of life and death

During my 40-year basketball officiating career, I remember a fan in a small high school gym taking exception to one of my calls.

The gentleman stomped down six or so steps before he stopped short of the court and gave me a piece of his mind. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I’m quite sure he wasn’t inviting me to dinner after the game.

After years of walking unimpeded into gyms to officiate Wichita City League high school games, I remember when fans and officials alike were asked to walk through metal detectors before gaining access to the gym.

On one occasion, I got a police escort from the gym to my car in the parking lot after a college game, and I was escorted out or offered to be escorted out by high school administrators on several occasions for precautionary reasons.

But to my knowledge, my life was never seriously threatened and I didn’t receive a death threat.

That’s not the case for everyone. For example, NCAA referee John Higgins met with law enforcement for more than two hours after Kentucky fans sent death threats and repeatedly called his company’s office and home despite an unlisted number.

Why such ire? Higgins worked the Elite Eight game between Kentucky and North Carolina this spring, which the Tar Heels won by two points at the buzzer. The Wildcats were whistled for 19 fouls, which isn’t extraordinarily high, but led Ken­tucky coach John Calipari to say, “You know, it’s amazing that we were in the game where they practically fouled out my team.”

My cynical response to such a statement is, “Well, maybe you should tell them to quit fouling.”

Higgins’ roofing company received about 3,000 harassing emails and an unknown number of phone calls, some including death threats. Really? Yes, really.

The high-profile officials like Higgins work games across the country during the basketball season, including the Big 12, among others.

While Kentucky’s season came to an end, the season continued for Higgins. He was one of the officials assigned to work in the Final Four. In fact, it was his eighth Final Four appearance.

Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball, said that while the NCAA appreciates the passion fans bring to college basketball, the behavior of some fans behavior toward Higgins is not appropriate.

“John is one of the most experienced and qualified college referees in the country, evidenced by his many years of officiating during March Madness, and for some fans to not only question his character but also criticize his private business is unfortunate,” Gavitt said.

While a death threat is clearly the exception and not the rule, one wonders if all the verbal abuse will take its toll and cause young people to think twice before going into officiating.

A recent story in The Wichita Eagle reported that an umpire shortage is putting high schools in a pickle.

The problem is twofold: a wet spring that caused baseball games to be postponed, and a shortage of umpires available to call the make-up games.

Derby High School’s athletic director said they had one soccer game, two baseball games and a softball game that worked for them, but were told there were no registered officials to work on those days.

The problem may not go away soon with the number of umpires declining while the average age of umpires increases. When those veteran umpires retire, the problem will be exacerbated unless a core of new officials is established soon.

According to a Kansas State High School Activities Association administrator, the three common complaints from umpires are poor pay, lack of respect and the hours.

Years ago when a fan yelled, “Kill the umpire,” no one took him seriously. I don’t know if it was ever considered funny back then, but if it was, it sure isn’t anymore.

Hillsboro resident Joe Klein­sasser is director of news and media relations at Wichita State University. You can reached him at Joe.Klein­sasser@wichita.edu.