The goal of a good sports official is for fans not to notice he or she is part of the game but a disturbing video made people around the world aware that Robert Watts was on the field for a football game last week in Texas.
Watts was positioned as the back judge and as a play started, one defensive player blindsided him from behind with a devastating hit then a second player speared Watts with his helmet as Watts lay on the field. Initial reports stated the players might have been encouraged to hit Watts by an assistant coach to retaliate for calls Watts made, but later the players came out and accused Watts of using racial slurs against their team; Watts’s attorney has said the players are “flat-out lying,” according to ABC News.
As the investigation into that case continues, I am left to wonder what life is like for high school sports officials in Missouri and whether players, coaches and parents are becoming more difficult to deal with.
Garry Walker was a football game official before becoming the football coach at Northwest High School; he still serves as a softball umpire. There was a hint of anger in his voice as he talked about the Texas video.
“My first impression was it was sad,” he said. “I have never seen anything like what happened the other day. In my opinion, that was assault. I have never seen a hit like that, not even player-on-player.”
Another area official, Mike Marcum, has worked soccer matches for 28 years. He also calls basketball and baseball games, and has built a reputation statewide as a consistent, by-the-book official. He called the hit on Watts “outrageous” and said the players “should never be allowed to play high school football again.” Concerning the players’ allegations, Marcum said if they are proven true, Watts also should get the boot.
Marcum does not believe treatment of high school game officials is worse than it has been in the past, but he added that “it will get worse if the official allows it. And that is 100 percent of what it is. What you permit, you promote.”
He described an incident from a soccer match he called Wednesday night: A player fell to the ground and wanted a call in his favor. He got up, screaming and waving his arms, and Marcum issued him a yellow card. The team’s captain told his teammate to pipe down because clearly Marcum was not going to tolerate such behavior. The game proceeded without any more incidents.
“My findings in 28 years of soccer is that once you put an end to it, nip it in the bud, you won’t have any problems,” Marcum said. “But if you’re trying to be somebody’s best friend … you’re going to get steamrolled. You’re there for a reason – to call the game, to keep the players under control and not allow anybody to get hurt.”
Walker noted that the Missouri State High School Athletic Association requires that each school have an administrator in attendance at each game to help manage problems with players, coaches and fans.
“For the most part, especially in high school ball, when stuff starts getting out of hand you have an athletic director, principal or a superintendent who represents the school (in attendance) so you can seek administrative help,” Walker said. “If a coach gets belligerent, there is always an administrator there to take the actions that are needed.”
Still, Walker admits that when it comes to fans, some officials “get overzealous, they have rabbit ears. They might hear too much chirping and they will have someone escorted out of the gym. But your best (option) is to know where that administrator is, call time out and they take care of that situation for you.”
In 28 years, Marcum has only ejected five parents from matches, “and it was for things they needed to leave for.”
“Parents by far are trying to do the right thing. They are there supporting their kids and I tip my hat to them for that,” he added. “But some of them just cross that line. … A lot of the parents unfortunately are living vicariously through their children. … I understand that. Parents, like the players, wear one uniform. I have had to tell coaches before, ‘I don’t wear white, I don’t wear black. I’m just here to call the game.’”
Walker believes people see how NFL or college fans and some coaches will make a scene and curse officials, then they emulate that behavior.
“At the high school level, they think it is the official’s fault and not how their kids are playing or how the coaches are coaching,” he said. “It’s always somebody else’s fault.”
Marcum, who has worked 14 state soccer Final Fours, enjoys his work and “my phone is always ringing.” While he doesn’t believe players, coaches and fans are making his job any more difficult, he does have one concern.
“I have unfortunately seen way too many young officials get vanquished by the game because they can’t take that heat from parents and coaches,” he said. “It’s not a job for everybody – you have to have a certain mindset.”
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.