The Whistle Blowers

They are booed or ignored and never cheered. So why do nearly a million people enjoy refereeing everything from Friday-night high school games to college championships?

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By Glenn Rifkin

Imagine: It’s a brisk, bright autumn Saturday morning on a green field in the suburbs. You arrive in your striped shirt, white baseball cap, and black running shoes with a whistle looped around your neck. Out on the field are a couple dozen middle-school-age boys in full football regalia, helmets gleaming in the morning sun. It’s game time, and this youth-league contest is one of many thousands getting underway around the country. Eager parents surround the field with their morning coffees and folding beach chairs, while the teams’ coaches bark last-minute instructions to their warriors.

You blow your whistle, order the team captains to meet you at the middle of the field, and explain the basic precepts—that you are here to maintain order amid the chaos, and they need to hear the whistle, follow the rules, and play fair. As they shake hands, you offer one last reminder: “Have fun.”

What follows this Wheaties-box scenario might not exactly be fun. You are the game official, but in real life you are a busy, stressed-out executive at a local bank or a downtown conglomerate. Due to COVID-19, you are working from home and have more spare time. You could have participated by coaching a team, which so many parents do, but when you were in college, you officiated youth sports as a cool part-time job that beat flipping burgers at McDonald’s. You discovered you were pretty good at it and you got the bug. Now, as a seasoned ref, you leave the office tensions behind and find your psychic reward, especially during the pandemic crisis, as an arbiter of fair play.

In truth, of course, officiating is often a very thankless gig. Under the best circumstances, you are invisible and ignored both during and after the game. Or worst case, you make a tough call and trigger the screaming abuse of the coaches, the players, and worst of all, those eager parents who drop their coffees, grow red in the face, and call you words you’ll never find in the Bible. Still, Barry Mano, the founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) in Racine, Wisconsin, who refereed high school sports for 23 years, offers a rational take on the experience by making an analogy to walking on coals. “We don’t get to do that anymore,” he says. Officiating is a modern equivalent. “It’s an arduous undertaking, fraught with various risks and dangers,” Mano says. “And when you are good at it, it’s like a race-car driver. It’s great therapy, and you get a real high out of it because it is difficult.”

Granted, it isn’t for the faint of heart or thin of skin. “You gotta love it when they boo,” Mano points out. “You have to be the type of individual who, under your breath, when 16,000 people are booing you, you say, ‘Hey, I got that play right. So go away.’?” (Or something a bit more colorful.)

In fact, officiating sports is a popular downtime activity for nearly a million people, according to NASO. Many are businesspeople who get paid a minimal amount, if anything, and do it for reasons other than compensation. While the participation number may sound high, consider the myriad different sports, from basketball to soccer to lacrosse, and the many thousands of youth sports leagues, high schools, and colleges that play, and it becomes clear that the demand for officials is insatiable. There are nearly 8 million students at the high school level alone who participate in athletic competitions every school year.

The allure for business types is clear. Officiating for high schools and youth sports teams offers a teaching opportunity and a venue for leadership. As Mano points out, an official has to love the sport, know the rules, and be up for the very public challenge of the job. But, he says, 80 percent of the task is managing people, a skill that business types can bring to the field. A football referee is the CEO of the officiating crew and must be adept at managing their team in an intense, fast-paced environment where indecision is unacceptable. The real-time nature of business decision-making is required to enforce the rules. Foul or no foul? Penalty or no penalty? You must remain calm but decisive—skills every top executive must acquire.

“We’re in the business of delivering the word ‘no,’?” Mano says. “When we blow the whistle or throw a flag, it’s the word no. That’s a skill set that takes a lot of training. It’s about personal power, not just positional power.” In fact, he adds, veteran officials actually welcome the thanklessness of the job. “If they applauded something I did, I felt totally uncomfortable,” Mano says. “I’m not there for that. We’re here to get the play right.” 

(click the image below to enlarge)