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Washington youth sports in jeopardy as officials dwindle in numbers

Me as a volunteer umpire.

What’s the one thing athletes really need to compete? It’s not equipment, cleats or even game plans. It’s officials. And Washington is running out of them.

Bumpus: ‘There’s definitely a trend going on’ as youth sports decline

There are 25 percent fewer officials working in Washington today than just a few years ago. That’s more than a thousand people who aren’t available for our kids’ games. If the trend continues, your league, even at the high school level, might face cancellations.

I remember a junior-varsity double-header I was coaching a few years ago where no umpires showed up. The coaches had to call balls and strikes from behind the pitcher because no umpire gear was available. That’s not acceptable for our kids at any level.

“You have a declining number of sports officials with an increasing number of games, whether they’re youth sports during the school ball or during summer leagues, adult leagues,” said Ted Buehner, an umpire with the Northwest Baseball Umpires Association. “That’s not sustainable.”

Dean Corcoran, who heads the Washington Officials Association, said they are in desperate need of new blood.

“We need more (officials) to come in the door, and we need to keep the ones we have,” Corcoran said.

Becoming a ref is a great way for passionate players to continue working the games that they love after their playing days are over. You’re still on the field. You’re still part of the action, and you get to help educate young players as they develop.

But Corcoran said a lot of passionate players aren’t returning to the field as refs because the abuse has gotten out of hand.

“One of the big reasons people leave officiating is the abuse they take, mostly from coaches and parents,” he said. Officials say kids are vocal too, but aren’t usually the problem.

Parents and coaches can be brutal. I’ve seen this throughout my coaching and umpiring days in soccer, baseball, and football. Parents have lost their minds in the stands and along the sidelines, and WOA executive director Todd Stordahl said it’s only getting worse.

“All of those attacks are now personal,” he said. “Not just yelling during the game, but they walk outside and there’s that fan who’s been yelling at them waiting for a confrontation outside.”

I’d guess most officials have had that moment when they’ve been met at their car. Fear is a legitimate reason for why many officials are leaving. The old school ribbing is now replaced by physical contact, threats, and personal attacks.

Baseball umpire Brian Rooney likes to tell a story from when he was behind the plate.

“I heard from behind me, at 1o o’clock in the morning, ‘come on Blue that’s been a strike all day,'” he said. “That was the third pitch of the game. You stand back and kind of laugh and think ‘that was a pretty good one.'”

A lot of the abuse from parents comes from a general lack of understanding of the rules their child is playing. For example, NFL rules do not apply to 8-year-old football. They don’t even apply to high school.

As I’ve always told abusive parents and coaches, if you think you can do this better job get off your butt and volunteer. We’d love to have another volunteer. Can’t get enough of them. Some of today’s officials take the same tact.

I asked Corcoran if he has ever thought of just no-showing at games to flex the power officials do have: No refs equals no games.

“We do not want kids to not play the game because adults can’t get along,” he said. “People have talked about how we should just strike. That’s not a good solution for the kids.”

Now I know I’m painting a rough life for officials, which is odd because this article is designed to attract new talent. The abuse can be real, but it’s not everywhere.

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Most parents and coaches understand your role and secretly appreciate it, even when yelling at you. You do need to have a thick skin. You have to realize that you’re never going to get over 50 percent approval.

But it’s as close to the action as you can get without still playing. You do get paid (a little), and the more you work, the better the chance you have to advance to higher and higher levels of competition. You’ll start with younger kids and move up, getting great training along the way. You could even end up coaching college games.

For Buehner, it’s just a blast.

“I’m out there with the kids, working with them to help them enjoy the game,” he said. “That’s what this is really all about, and quite frankly it’s a lot of fun — it really is.”

Check out the Washington Officials Association to learn more about becoming an official. You can even sign up right there. There’s a huge training event Feb. 8 at Everett Memorial Stadium if you want more information, or to get some work in with professional officials.

The association will take most any age. If you’re a high school age kid, even you can get started. As long as you can keep your cool and do the job, veteran officials would love to start training you.

No officials means no games, and that’s worse than any call you will ever complain about.

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