Refereeing a truly thankless job

A week or so ago here at the Fort Frances Times’ office, co-op student Nicole Horn was watching an interview with her favourite hockey player, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers, who mentioned the job of a garbageman was one he would never want to have.
That, in turn, led to a discussion in the newsroom of jobs they wouldn’t be interested in having, with that aforementioned job being the clubhouse leader as the one position that no one would want to have.
Following that chat, I began to wonder what would be the one gig in the sporting world that would be the least desirable to have, and the answer came to me in an flash.
A referee.
Whether it be in a local softball league or the gold-medal game in men’s hockey at the Olympics, the official always is viewed as public enemy number-one depending on their calls, especially for those watching from the stands.
The first time I noticed the general apathy and vitriol that officials face came from when I was watching—and eventually covering—my home-town Soo Greyhounds of the OHL, where it often seemed that the only time that the fans would make any noise would be when they felt a call or non-call went against their favourite team.
“It’s not just here in the Soo as I’ve heard that same complaint from the fans in more than one arena,” noted freelance reporter Brad Coccimiglio, who has covered major junior and college hockey for a decade.
“The biggest thing is that when the people complain, they always want to throw the referees under the bus, and that is something that I’m guilty of doing sometimes to.
“But at the end of the day, we have to put it in some sort of perspective and that this is not a full-time job for these guys,” Coccimiglio added.
The role of a referee who just gets involved for their love of the game is most noticeable in a town like Fort Frances, where, for the most part, a need for more officials leads to people getting involved.
“When I started back in 1973, there were no referees so I had to start doing it,” recalled Rick Wiedenhoeft, who officiates football, volleyball, and basketball games here.
“I just loved doing it right away, and it has just been a continuation of that from that point on for me,” he noted.
In the case of Paul Noonan, who has been a basketball referee for six years, his 16 years as a coach eventually led to him to becoming an official, in what was a bit of a role reversal.
“I had been coaching for all of those years, and doing enough refereeing from the sidelines, that I thought I would do it from the centre court,” he explained.
“It was quite a bit different for me and it gave me a different perspective from what I used to be doing.
“Instead of before where I was always hassling the referees, now I was the referee getting hassled,” he remarked.
While both Noonan and Wiedenhoeft enjoy what they do, they both admit their biggest challenge as an official is making sure they get the calls right in a big game, whether it be a NorWOSSA final or the championship game of a tournament.
“There is a lot more pressure and intensity in those games, so you have to be on your toes as all times,” Wiedenhoeft stressed.
“When you a referring a game like the finals of the junior tournament here this weekend, the game is very high-paced and things happen very quickly, so you have to make sure that you have that call right,” echoed Noonan.
Without a doubt, though, the scrutiny that officials in professional sports get over any calls they make is something that makes the job that Noonan and Wiedenhoeft have to do seem like a walk in the park.
In fact, I’m sure baseball umpire Jim Joyce and hockey ref Kerry Fraser can’t visit Detroit or Toronto to this day without having a Tigers’ or Maple Leafs’ fan raising all sorts of heck over calls that went against their team years ago.
One sport that seemingly has officiating controversies week after week occurs in the English Premier League, where it seems that a match day doesn’t go by where an officiating decision occurred that leaves soccer fans instantly fuming.
“It’s not like it used to be where it was just through hearsay if an official missed a call, or if you were a fan at the ground and you had to wait six hours later to see the highlights on ‘Match of the Day’ on the BBC to find out whether the official was right or wrong,” noted Kristian Jack, an analyst on “The Footy Show” for The Score television network.
“Now you can find out instantly on your phone through something like Twitter when you are at the game, so there is now more of an opportunity to attack the referees instead of just having a bit of a go at them,” he added.
In addition to the fans giving them abuse, soccer officials often have to deal with the players themselves barraging them with verbal abuse over their decisions, which is something Jack feels is a major issue going forward.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Champions League match or a game at your local field on a Sunday afternoon, there remains a lack of respect from footballers to the officials,” he stressed.
“Unfortunately, the game is breeding that right now, and it’s disappointing to see that younger players see that lack of respect given to the refs by the top players and think that it’s the right away to go about things,” Jack added.
At the end of the day, while there often are times where a call an official makes leaves fans shaking their heads and demanding justice, we have to remember that these are just human beings and that they can mistakes.
Sure, we might be upset following the game about it, but that doesn’t mean we should be blinded by our anger over the situation for a long period of time.
“There’s things that obviously don’t go your way sometimes and you think that the officials don’t see things the way that you do,” said Fort Frances Lakers’ forward Colton Spicer.
“But you just have to keep your cool out there as a player and not let things get to you,” he reasoned.
And if a player can see it that way, why can’t we do the same thing in the stands?