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Let's hear it for referees

Referees play a critical role in youth sports from recreational leagues to club programs and through high school.

Children experience the joy of winning and the lessons of loss, while parents get to be right there with them all because referees are willing to spend their days, evenings and weekends making sure the rules are followed, the score gets kept and the games get played.

Unfortunately, youth referees' jobs are becoming increasingly difficult due to the behavior of parents, coaches and players and a decreasing level of sportsmanship. This is jeopardizing the positive culture of youth sports and playing of the games themselves.

Dick Piland, who lives in the Overbrook neighborhood in Niwot, is a former Colorado high school baseball umpire, who also umpired for many years for youth baseball. Piland cited a video segment, originally shown on the CBS Evening News, of a young, aspiring baseball umpire that focused on 10-year-old Vincent Stio, who lives, eats and breathes umpiring. In the video, Stio's parents said it's the leadership, rule-following and evenness of umpiring that has drawn him in so deeply.

Much like young Stio, Piland was drawn into umpiring in the mid-1990s while he was a pilot with United Airlines. Piland noted that both umpiring and piloting a commercial airline, particularly the left seat where Piland sat, require the same leadership, rule-following and evenness Stio's parents observed.

Piland got into umpiring by answering a help wanted ad that noted "no experience necessary." While playing the guitar was a hobby, he was looking for more to do when he was not flying hundreds of passengers to their destinations on Boeing 727s and then, Airbus A320s.

Piland started umpiring recreational league games for the Longmont Baseball League, which partnered with Niwot Youth Sports for the older age groups. Before he advanced into high school games covering Longmont, Niwot, Erie, Estes Park and Boulder, he had to attend clinics once a week which were effectively rule book practicums. After about nine years as a high school umpire, he became an area director and was responsible for 45-50 umpires.

Piland recalls the esprit de corps with other umpires as being one of his biggest sources of enjoyment. During more challenging games when his calls were more "vocally contested" by parents and coaches, he said about his fellow umpires, "At least there's one other person on your side."

Umpiring also provided Piland with the challenging enjoyment of focusing on many things at once including, the strike zone, pitch count, the catcher's position, the infield fly rule, tag plays, and force outs.

Piland is one of several local residents who serve or have served as high school sports officials.

Russ Strufing, who lives in the Somerset neighborhood of Niwot and referees middle school and high school basketball, spoke of the camaraderie with fellow referees as being one of the primary reasons why he enjoys refereeing. He also appreciates watching the burgeoning athleticism of the players, particularly high schoolers, whose games he said are easier to call than middle school because high school players have already learned the fundamentals of the game.

Strufing played football, baseball and basketball growing up in Crete, Nebraska, where his high school team was the Class B state runner-up in 1972. Strufing began his professional career in the insurance industry, and retired in 2016 after 40 years with Farmers Insurance. Although he had earlier dabbled in basketball officiating, he began seriously refereeing in the early 2000s and then focused in earnest on middle and high school girls and boys basketball here in the Boulder County area starting in 2007.

When asked if he ever gets caught up watching his games versus calling his games, Strufing said it has not been an issue for him, but he does see that happen with scorekeepers sometimes. The issue is more prevalent during middle school games when scorekeepers can be young students or a parent pulled out of the stands, both who may not always be focusing on the scorekeeping task at hand.

Piland and Strufing both spoke about the decreasing level of sportsmanship they've seen over the years from players, coaches, and parents.

Strufing, who is scheduled to referee 34 games this January, commented that he sees parents' behavior "going in the wrong direction." And among players, he said "flopping," particularly in high school, is becoming more egregious. He shared the story of a high school player who mis-timed his flop and ended up falling on the court completely untouched by the opposing player.

Piland recalled that it was around 2005 when he began to experience an increasing amount of micro and macro aggressions on the field. He also experienced aggression off the field when walking to his car after a game.

In keeping with his value of personal accountability, Strufing mentioned that some sportsmanship onus does fall on the referee to manage the crowd and coaches in support of respectful behavior.

However, the trend toward unsportsmanlike behavior has a negative impact on the viability of youth sports. The Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) is being forced to cancel games more often because referees and umpires are unavailable. Niwot High School administrators note that they are unable to schedule Friday night basketball games due to a lack of available referees.

Piland said he recently saw data that said 50% of all youth sports referees are 50 years of age or older.

This means that as older referees retire, a pipeline of younger officials need to enter the profession, go through training and gain important on-field and on-court experience over the course of years. In an effort to recruit younger officials, the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) recently announced a pay increase for high school officials, but the increase takes effect gradually over the next few years.

The National Association of Sports Officials said in October of 2023, "We are rapidly reaching the crisis stage in prep and youth sports, where fewer and fewer people are willing to take on the job of officiating games. More than 70 percent of new referees, in all sports, quit the job within three years."

CHSAA has been putting more pressure on league, club and school athletic directors to set expectations of better behavior and sportsmanship with parents and coaches. Strufing said he's starting to see the results in the form of more appreciation from coaches and parents since CHSAA started their campaign. And he noted that game pay is improving.

Piland has also been on the "Road Crew" for the Niwot Community Association for several years, a group of women and men volunteers who wear orange vests and manage traffic during the parades and events in Niwot.

He said wearing an orange vest during a community event is a little like umpiring, in that people look to you for answers and might not always be pleased with the ones you give them.

Next time you're at a youth sporting event, take a moment and consider saying thanks to the officials. They will appreciate it and the games will continue to provide opportunities for youth, and enjoyment for fans.


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