How big of a problem is violence against referees in high school athletics?

Matt Allibone
York Daily Record

Pat Gebhart said the positive experiences outweighed the negative during his 25 years officiating high school basketball in York County. 

But he won't deny that negative experiences are an issue. 

And negative experiences can sometimes go beyond verbal abuse. 

That happened this fall when Spring Grove football player Tyree Brooks attacked 17-year veteran referee Richard Delaughter at the conclusion of a game against Dover on Oct. 1. Brooks was charged with one felony of aggravated assault and two misdemeanors of simple assault and assault on a sports official. 

Incidents like that are rare, but the concern of them potentially occurring is a major reason why the PIAA — like many state associations — has struggled to retain and recruit new officials in recent years.

"In my nine years here it's been a constant issue," said Gebhart, the PIAA's assistant executive director in charge of oversight of officials. "National studies show that when officials leave in their third or fourth year the overwhelming response is because of abuse from coaches and players.

"It's definitely a primary reason."

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Physical assault on high school refs is rare, but the concern of them potentially occurring is a major reason why the PIAA — like many state associations — has struggled to retain and recruit new officials in recent years.

How often does abuse occur? 

The PIAA has seen about a 16% drop in its number of officials in the past five years — going from 15,567 to around 13,000, according to Gebhart. 

The YAIAA has seen a "considerable" decrease in officials over that same time, according to executive director Chuck Abbott. The league expects to have 35 fewer basketball referees this winter than last season. 

There are a number of reasons for that. Officiating can be time consuming for a part-time job. Some might not think the pay (around $75 to $100 for a game) is worth it. And the coronavirus pandemic has added another obstacle, with some older referees not wanting to risk their health. 

"The COVID issue hurt us really bad," said Abbott. "Age is a factor. Some decided to take last year off and now they said they don't miss it." 

But the potential verbal abuse from fans, coaches and players is often listed as a reason why people don't want to try — or stay with — officiating. According to a national study done by Ohio University in 2018, nearly 86% of officials said they would be likely to quit if abuse worsened. 

According to Gebhart, most of that abuse does not escalate to the point of becoming physical. But there have been examples before the situation at Spring Grove this fall. A parent slammed a referee on the mat at a wrestling match between St. Joseph's Prep and Archbishop Ryan last year. A basketball coach at Neshaminy High School near Philadelphia was fired for head-butting a referee in 2016. 

A high school football player in Texas leveled a referee after being ejected from a game last season. 

While those examples can be counted on one hand, they can receive enough attention to scare away prospective officials, according to Gebhart. 

"I wouldn't say it's common but we've seen it happen," Gebhart said. "And when it does it's so alarming it makes it seem like it happens more than it actually does." 

Gebhart said that young or aspiring referees worried about abuse should speak with veteran officials about how to handle situations and to ease their minds about how often negative experiences occur. 

He pointed out that experienced officials still get yelled at by fans or participants but stick with the job because they see the overall benefits. 

"We have to remember we're there for the student-athletes," said Phil Miller, the president of the York-Adams Chapter of PIAA Basketball Officials. "We can't be so thin-skinned you let someone affect how you're calling the game. 

"Your best friend is your fellow official. We're on the same team and have each other's backs so it's important to remember you always have at least one friend." 

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What's being done to protect officials? 

Longtime PIAA referee Don Middleton officiated basketball and softball for more than 45 years. Even experienced officials get yelled at by fans or participants but they see the overall benefits of the job. 'We have to remember we're there for the student-athletes,' said Phil Miller, the president of the York-Adams Chapter of PIAA Basketball Officials.

Gebhart said there are stories about officials getting "accosted at their vehicle" after a game. 

That was one reason the PIAA instituted a "supplemental disqualification rule" last school year. 

The rule is for any coach or player ejected from a game for confronting, contacting or addressing a coach, player or official using foul or vulgar language, ethnic or racially insensitive comments or physical contact. The player or coach would be ejected from the game and then suspended for the next two games, but schools can give harsher penalties on top of that. 

Tyree Brooks has not played since receiving a supplemental disqualification for his actions on Oct. 1. Spring Grove has declined to comment of his official status since the incident. 

The rule is in effect from the moment an official arrives at a game site to the moment they depart the campus — in case they are confronted before or after a game begins.

Low numbers:Low pay, abusive fans make it difficult to recruit more PIAA officials

"They only had jurisdiction on the court before. Now they have jurisdiction on the campus," Gebhart said. "We thought that showed support to the officials." 

The PIAA doesn't have an official policy for escorting an official off the field after a game, but Gebhart said the organization is closely monitoring a set of guidelines District One in suburban Philadelphia has created for schools to defuse potentially dangerous situations. 

The guidelines include having security or school personnel — such as an athletic director or principal — escort referees to the dressing room and their cars after the game. Referees are given parking spaces close to the school or field. 

District One assistant director Sean Kelly said the suggestions are guidelines and not a mandated rule or policy. 

"Our schools have great security and some of them have different setups and they know what they need," said Kelly when asked why it wasn't a mandated policy. "We just wanted to have a checklist and a proper security document. Sometimes officials are walking off the field right past fans and we don't want anyone in danger." 

Miller and Abbott said YAIAA schools give referees assigned parking spots and have school officials escort them off the court after games.

Miller said referees will typically leave the school together so nobody can be confronted alone. 

"We ask officials not to extend their time on the court whether it's talking to coaches or someone else," Abbott said. "That plays a big part in keeping things safe." 

Should players be allowed to stay on the bench?

The YAIAA will have a stricter policy than the PIAA when players are ejected. The league approved a policy about a month ago that will require schools to escort an ejected player "off the playing venue" to the locker room and contact a parent.

The PIAA does not require that a player be removed from a gym or stadium after being ejected from the game. 

According to Gebhart, the organization's recommendation is that an ejected player remain on the sideline or bench since they would still be supervised by coaches or other school officials. But he said a referee can ask a team for a player to be escorted to the locker room by a coach "if they continue to be disruptive." 

"Officials have done that, and I've done that in the past," Gebhart said. "We prefer that the administration takes care of that but a referee can say something if a player continues to be disruptive." 

Tyree Brooks remained on Spring Grove's sideline after being ejected in the third quarter against Dover for receiving two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Rockets coach Kyle Sprenkle told police Brooks remained emotional on the sideline for about five minutes but was calm the rest of the game. 

But moving forward, the YAIAA will have a stricter policy than the PIAA when players are ejected. 

Abbott said the league approved a policy about a month ago that will require schools to escort an ejected player "off the playing venue" to the locker room and contact a parent. He declined to comment when asked if the policy is related to what happened at the Spring Grove vs. Dover football game. 

"We are being very proactive with this," Abbott said. "It's for the protection of the officials and the players themselves." 

Being a 'calming' presence

It's not all bad blood between coaches and officials. James Buchanan boys basketball coach Larry Strawoet, left, shares a laugh with official Barry Shipley during a game at Waynesboro last year.

Miller said it's important for referees to establish good relationships with athletic directors so they can quickly point out issues with "unruly" fans during games. 

He added they need to focus on diffusing situations when players might have a  disagreement with a specific call. 

"If a player has a question, we talk to them in a respectful manner," Miller said. "These are 16 to 18 year old kids and sometimes they can be emotional. We need to be the calming factor and talk them through situations." 

When recruiting younger individuals to become referees, Gebhart said he tells them there are "more good experiences than not." He said it's important for officials to focus on those good moments since "there will be 20 of those for every negative one." 

Abbott said coaches, fans and players should remember one thing when interacting with referees. 

"How about treating others the way you want to be treated?" Abbott said. "Nobody deserves the words that come out of some fans mouths." 

Matt Allibone is a sports reporter for GameTimePA. He can be reached at 717-881-8221, mallibone@ydr.com or on Twitter at @bad2theallibone.