Hardesty: Referees deserve a raise and more – respect

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

I’m not sure what I expected — or if I expected anything at all — but when I discovered recently that high school football officials in Northeast Ohio were paid $70 a game, it sounded pretty low to me.

Actually, really low.

I’m not well versed on pay scales for game officials in every high school sport, but my baseline feeling on it is that whatever they’re paid, it isn’t nearly enough for the abuse they take from coaches and, especially, fans.

Maybe I’m naive, but I just assumed they made something fair in exchange for having to be experts on the rules of the game, driving to and from games after long days of working, calling ’em as they see ’em as best they can on game day, and enduring a couple hours of insults and name-calling while doing it.

The $70-a-game thing was news to me until I saw that high school football officials in Northeast Ohio were ready to boycott the 2022 season if they didn’t get a pay raise — which they hadn’t received in almost 20 years.

With the first week of the season rapidly approaching, that fiasco was averted when officials met with athletic directors, conference commissioners, school principals and members of the OHSAA and struck a deal Aug. 8 that steadily increases pay for football game officials over the next several years. The meeting was organized by Chagrin Valley Conference Commissioner Don Lewis and Beachwood Athletic Director Ryan Peters.

According to a report by John Sabol of Fox 8 News in Cleveland, the new pay structure looks like this:

  • Varsity football officials will make $80 a game this season, a $10 bump from what they made the last couple decades.
  • The pay increases to $90 per game in 2023.
  • The new deal tops out at $100 a game in 2024 and ’25.

But it’s not just football. Negotiations for pay hikes for officials in other high school sports will take place later in August.

Even $100 doesn’t sound like enough for the abuse these people take. While working on a Round 2 column a while back about recently retired area basketball official Jeff Hoover, I was appalled to hear some of his horror stories as a ref, including the time an assistant coach waited in his car to confront Hoover and instances of fans threatening bodily harm and entering the officials’ locker room. (Note to hooligans: Many, if not most, of these officials are former athletes who are still in good enough shape to run up and down a court or field for a couple hours, so be careful of the fight you pick).

I’m not going to suggest that I’m a choir boy when it comes to expressing my feelings about the officiating when I’m watching a game. Yes, bad calls are infuriating. Yes, it drives you crazy that, as a fan, you can’t do anything about it. And yes, I’m sure my blood pressure skyrockets into life-threatening territory every time I see a basketball ref call a blocking foul on a defender who is standing still as the player with the ball jumps into the defender to initiate contact, or a football official ejects a player from a game for targeting on helmet contact slightly less severe than that of a feather landing on grass.

It has my pulse pounding as I write.

But I confine my behavior to the privacy of my own home. The worst that’s going to happen is the off chance that my ranting and raving will be heard by the neighbors — collateral damage, if you will.

People who threaten and stalk officials are a different matter entirely. These cretins exist, and officials know that every time they put on the uniform and take the field, floor, ice or whatever surface their sport is played on, anything can happen. They expect coaches to work on them and fans to detest just about every call they make, but they also know there is probably an ingrate or two in the crowd capable of just about anything.

A moment that is seared into my memory is the day the plate ump threw a fan off the premises during our Mogadore Tigers G League team’s game at Suffield elementary. An older fan of the Suffield team was sitting along the third-base line loudly dropping F-bombs all over the place. As the Tigers’ third baseman, my 12-year-old ears got to hear this guy’s extensive vocabulary loud and clear as he ceaselessly berated the ump.

The guy, who I presumed was someone’s grandpa, was finally warned by the ump to knock it off with the foul language. Naturally, he didn’t, so the ump stopped the game, told the guy to leave, and refused to restart the game until the guy had left. The man dutifully stood up, folded his lawn chair, picked it up and slowly walked toward the parking lot — cussing all the way back to his car.

I thought this was an exception until I began covering Hot Stove baseball games for the Record-Courier back in the mid-1990s, when I realized that adults cussing at umps in front of small children was more of a rule than an exception. I was embarrassed … for the little kids, who had to listen to grown men and women — their parents — acting like juveniles.

I always ask myself: Why would anyone want to be a ref? Why would anyone make a conscious decision to subject themselves to such rotten treatment?

I always figured the simple answer was the money made it worthwhile. I know now that’s not true. The money is getting better, but even $100 a game doesn’t sound worth it.

The answer officials usually give is that they do it because they love the game and they love being around the athletes. I get that, but when weighed against the vitriol raining down on them from the stands every game, I’m not sure it balances out — for love or money.

But we all should be glad that it does. Because the same people who are the subject of so much ire during games are the same people whose thick skin and professionalism allow the games to take place in the first place.

Something high school football in Northeast Ohio nearly found out the hard way.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.