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In any organized sporting event, someone must govern the contest. Those who oversee sport competitions are known as officials. Depending on the type of sport, an official may be referred to as a referee, umpire, or judge. In all cases it is the duty of the official to make competition as fair as possible and to make sure it is played by the existing rules of the sport. An official has been defined as “a person who is knowledgeable in the rules and mechanics of the game and applies them to make the contest fair for all participants and comports him- or herself as a professional at all times” (Sabaini 2002,19).
Of all of the groups involved in sports, including athletes, coaches, and spectators, officials may receive the least attention. In fact it is sometimes said the best way to tell if the officials have done a good job is if nobody noticed them. Most officials will agree that the focus
should remain on the athletes. Indeed, on the limited occasions when officials receive attention, it is often due to a decision perceived to be incorrect or a controversial call. Regardless of the lack of attention generally given to officials, they represent an essential component of any organized sporting event.
The Official’s Job
The official’s job can be understood by dividing it into three major components: knowledge, application, and comportment. Knowledge includes understanding the rules of the sport, as well as strategies used by athletes
and teams. An effective official not only knows the rules listed in the rule book, but also remains current with the types of plays and maneuvers used in the sport. Knowledge also includes correct officiating mechanics, which refers to the physical movements and positions that the official should exhibit. For example, when signaling that a rules infraction has been committed, the official must use hand signals that are specified in the sport’s rule book. In addition, in many sports there are appropriate physical positions for officials to adopt for a given game situation. Most baseball spectators will recognize, for example, that the first-base umpire changes his or her location on the field when a runner reaches first base.
The second component, application, includes qualities such as being honest, fair, consistent, using sound judgment, and having good communications skills. An effective official not only thoroughly knows the rules, but also applies them in the proper manner. Certainly, if an official is not fair and free of bias, the integrity of the entire contest is compromised. Additionally, while most rules are stated clearly, interpreting a particular action according to the rules often involves a certain degree of judgment (e.g., whether a foul was flagrant or unintentional).Therefore, judgment is an important factor in officiating. An official must also strive to be a good communicator, so that he or she can be understood by all interested parties.
The third and last component of officiating is comportment, which includes displaying a suitable demeanor and behaving appropriately under pressure.
Officials strive to exhibit a sense of authority and control over a contest, but without displaying a superior attitude. Demonstrating respect for coaches and players even while making unfavorable calls according to the rules is an aspect of comportment. Also, officials often must perform their duties under a great deal of pressure. Effective officials are able to perform well under stressful conditions without being inappropriately influenced by athletes, coaches, or spectators. One way to understand the job of an official is to consider the rules of the sport as laws to be upheld. In this way officials function as the sport’s law enforcement officers (indeed, both “official” and “officer” are derived from the same Latin word, officium, meaning “duty”). They are the final authority in determining the legality of any action and ensuring that an athletic competition is conducted according to the rules. Also, like police officers, sports officials place the highest priority on safety. In many instances players and coaches are familiar with the rules, and officials go largely unnoticed as they monitor the contest. However, when a question arises, the officials are charged with the responsibility of interpreting and enforcing the rules.
Depending on the sport and level of competition, the rule book may be several hundred pages long, and it is the official’s job to know it all. Rulings that are visible to spectators in stadiums or on television reflect only a portion of the decisions that officials make. When a team of officials arrives at a competition site, they begin their work. Before a contest begins, officials verify the legality of equipment, facilities, and uniforms. In most sports one or more officials will check to ensure that the dimensions of the playing area are in accordance with the rules; meet with coaches and athletes to answer questions and discuss certain issues, such as those regarding sportsmanship; and communicate with support staff such as scorers and timekeepers. In sports where weight classes are used, wrestling and judo, for example (in addition to youth sports in which eligibility is determined by weight), the officials conduct weigh-ins. If a significant event should occur before, during, or after a contest, the officials are responsible for communicating the ruling and circumstances surrounding the event to league administrators. Often, this will involve reporting player or coach ejections, so that the league can take appropriate action.
Officiating in Different Sports and Competition Levels
All officials have an interest in ensuring a safe and fair contest, but the specific actions and decisions that they make depend largely on the sport itself. In sports where form and aesthetics partially determine an athlete’s score, such as gymnastics, figure skating, and diving, officials are referred to as judges. Generally, a panel of judges evaluates each athlete’s performance. The judges remain relatively stationary in a location best suited to view the performance and make independent conclusions regarding scores. Here, the independence of each official’s ruling is of primary importance, allowing each judge to make decisions according to his or her interpretation of the rules without being influenced by another judge. In most cases the actual score recorded represents an average of judges’ rulings.
In contrast to the independence of judges, referees and umpires in many sports work together as a team—often referred to as an “officiating crew”— where each official openly communicates with the others. Sports where officiating crews are used include soccer, American football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. Especially in team sports, where many athletes are on the field, too many activities occur simultaneously for one official to monitor them all. Therefore, each crew member has a specific assignment and area of responsibility. When disagreements arise, the official in charge of the crew may convene a brief conference before determining the appropriate ruling. In such a conference, the official who was in the best position to view the action is encouraged to suggest the proper decision, though the individual in charge of the crew is ultimately responsible for the ruling.
Even in sports where winners are determined largely by clear objective measures, such as time or distance (e.g., swimming and track and field events), officials are essential to the conduct of a safe and fair competition. In such sports the officials are responsible for monitoring the legality of equipment and infractions such as faults and false starts, along with other rules and procedures. Officials are used at all levels of competition, from youth leagues to professional sports. At the professional and international levels in some (but not all) sports, officiating is a full-time job. At the collegiate, club, recreational, and youth league levels, however, officials mostly work on a parttime or contractual basis. Usually, the official gets paid for each competition, with a fee that is agreed on ahead of time. In addition to the extra money provided, officials have cited interest and enthusiasm for the sport, challenge and excitement, and a sense of control as reasons for officiating. Often at amateur levels of competition and in youth leagues, officials will volunteer their time, perhaps receiving only a free meal as compensation for their efforts.
Even within a particular sport, the rules that officials enforce differ for varying levels of competition. These differences include specific actions that are prohibited for younger age groups, different dimensions on the playing field, and various other technical aspects of the sport, such as whether a receiver must catch a pass with one or two feet in bounds for the play to be ruled a completion in American football. An official who works at various competition levels in a sport must govern the competition according to the rule of the particular league.
Selecting and Evaluating Officials
Becoming an official at lower levels of competition is a fairly straightforward process. If someone is interested in officiating, he or she can often become an official simply by volunteering. Sometimes, volunteer officials are required to pay a nominal fee to cover insurance costs and undergo a security screening. At higher levels of com-petition, the process becomes somewhat more involved. In addition to paying a registration fee, most high school sports officials in the United States must earn a minimum score on a rules examination and attend regular rules clinics. As the level of competition increases, so do the requirements for officiating at that level.
Given the lack of monetary compensation available for officials in many leagues, as well as other demanding aspects of the vocation such as the threat of verbal and physical assault, the demand for officials often outweighs the supply. Officiating organizations therefore devote a fair amount of effort to recruiting new officials. This usually means encouraging athletes who are toward the end of their playing careers to consider officiating as a means of maintaining involvement in their sports.
Once an official is registered, he or she may be selected to work at an actual contest. Typically, newer officials are expected to prove themselves at lower levels of competition (i.e., junior varsity contests at the high school level) before being assigned to major games or tournaments. Just as athletes strive to reach championship level competitions, so too do the officials. The method by which officials are assigned varies from one organization to the next, with many having no specific method in place. According to one study conducted in 2002, 52 percent of officials associations in the United States that responded to a survey did not use a standardized system for awarding tournament assignments.
Various systems have been used, however. These methods include selecting officials based on evaluations con-ducted by veteran members of the association, rules test scores, coaches’ requests, and seniority. An additional factor in selection is neutrality. In playoff competitions, for example, when teams from two different conferences play one another, the officiating crew is usually made up of officials from a third conference. Likewise, in major international competition, for reasons of fairness the officials selected typically hail from a country other than those represented by the athletes.
One of the difficulties in selecting officials stems from the inherent challenges in evaluating an individual’s or crew’s performance. Unlike assessing which team deserves to advance, which easily can be determined by the score, it can be difficult to ascertain how well an official has performed. Methods of evaluation can include written exams, oral quizzes with veteran officials, direct observation, and review of videotapes. Evaluators can include officiating assigners, commissioners, peer officials, state association members, and coaches. Due to the wide range of possibilities, when it comes down to how an official is evaluated, it is up to the officials’ governing body to standardize and implement the evaluation process.
Officials and Errors
Officiating has been humorously described as the one job where someone is expected to start out being perfect—and then to improve from there. Some officials observe that they are held to higher standards than other sport participants, pointing out that athletes and coaches regularly make mistakes without incident, while a single bad call by an official attracts a great deal of criticism. Officials, of course, like anyone else, do sometimes make mistakes. With as many as several hundred or more decisions to make during a competition, errors are inevitable.
Notwithstanding these imperfections, there is evidence that officials at the professional level are quite effective in making correct decisions. For example, in Major League Baseball in the United States during the 2004 season, a computer system indicated that umpires correctly called more than 93 percent of pitches as balls or strikes. The error rate also may be overestimated by the public because attention tends to shift to officials only when an error actually occurs. If spectators notice the official, it is almost always because a possible mistake has been made. In contrast, during the majority of the time when officials are performing adequately, they go largely unnoticed. In addition many calls that are perceived to be in error are actually correct. The rules of a sport typically require a good deal of judgment on the part of an official, and he or she generally has a better understanding of the rules than other interested parties. Considering that coaches, athletes, and spectators almost always have a subjective interest in the contest, officials represent the only group charged with maintaining a neutral, objective stance. Thus, their judgment is often appropriate, even when perceived as being flawed by a majority of viewers.
Some officials have joked that since there are two sides to a contest, an official is perceived to be right only half of the time.
Nonetheless, officials do attempt to minimize the number of errors made. In fact, rule books for most sports include procedures for correcting errors when they do occur—if the error is detected within a certain time frame. In addition, toward the end of the twentieth century, major sports organizations began using technology to improve officials’ rates of correct calls. Perhaps the most conspicuous use of technology involves video replay. As of 2004 professional basketball, hockey, and American football organizations were using some form of video replay to review officials’ initial decisions, with Major League Baseball, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (in football), and the United States Tennis Association also considering its use. Supporters of this type of technology in officiating claim that procedures such as viewing video replays of “close calls” increases the proportion of correct decisions. Others argue that officials must be entrusted with a degree of judgment, and the fact that they are human and, thus, imperfect, is part of the game. Indeed, it is likely that no matter how much technology advances, officials’ errors, like mistakes made by athletes and coaches, will remain a necessary aspect of sport.
Changing Rules over Time
As all officials strive to conduct a contest according to the rules currently in effect, many are involved in evaluating the rules and, when deemed appropriate, suggesting changes. An historical review of nearly any sport will reveal that the rules have changed over time. These changes occur for a variety of reasons. In some cases officials recognize that competitors exploit a technical oversight in the rules to gain an unfair advantage over opponents, and that this oversight must be corrected. At other times innovations in competitive techniques and strategies require a change in the rules to address the most modern forms of play. On occasion rules are altered in order to increase public appeal by encouraging such things as higher scores or faster-paced play. Another frequent reason for rules changes is to better ensure the safety of the participants.
Often, a rule modification will occur first at high levels of competition before trickling down to the rule books for the lower leagues, such as those at the youth level. For developmental and safety reasons, however, some modifications nearly always remain in the rules for younger competitors. On occasion trends in youth sport influence the rules at elite levels of play. For example, in addressing the need to promote sportsmanship among high school athletes, Mike Pereira, director of officiating for the National Football League, stated, “The pros and college sports have a huge impact on the play of the game at lower levels. To turn our backs on that is a huge mistake” (Arehart 2002, 25).
With rules changing over time, officials must constantly evolve with a sport. One cannot memorize the rule book and be prepared indefinitely. To be effective an official must know the rules and the underlying intent, apply the rules during competition, and comport him or herself appropriately. Officials are expected to fulfill their assignments under stressful conditions and to maintain their composure and neutral stance despite sometimes harsh criticism. It is a difficult job, with recognition coming primarily when something goes wrong. Nonetheless, most officials express a fondness for the vocation, as well as for the sports in which they serve.
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- Arehart, J. (2002). Standing up for sportsmanship. Referee, 27 (1), 24-28.
- Burke, K. L. (1991). Dealing with sport officials. Sport Psychology Training Bulletin, 2(6), 1-8.
- Burke, K. L., Joyner, A. B., Pim, A., & Czech, D. R. (2000). An exploratory investigation of the perceptions of anxiety among basketball officials before, during, and after the contest. Journal of Sport Behavior, 23, 11-19.
- Davis, K. L. (1996). The art of sports officiating. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Grunska, J. (Ed.). (1999). Successful sports officiating. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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