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Omaha NCAA basketball ref: Youth sports fan, coach behavior drives referee shortage

John Higgins says he's seen the problem twice recently in the metro
Posted at 6:51 PM, May 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-24 12:19:48-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — John Higgins is regarded as one of college basketball's top officials, having officiated in nine Final Fours.

Higgins' son, then 15 years old, was set to officiate a high school freshman AAU basketball game at Iowa West Field House in Council Bluffs. When his son's friend couldn't make it, Higgins himself filled in.

What he experienced, Higgins said, clearly illustrates why there's an emerging referee shortage and a big problem for athletics as a whole.

'I referee D1 college basketball ... I haven't heard anything like that'

John Calipari, John Higgins
Kentucky head coach John Calipari, right, address official John Higgins after being assessed a technical foul during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 73-67. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

"I'm teaching my son how to referee, where to stand, how to hold your hand, how to hold your fist and all the basic stuff you learn," said Higgins.

One team, he said, began to play especially aggressively. Naturally, fouls were called. A player and his coach, which he'd later learn were father and son, were both given technical fouls for their behavior. The freshman "said something that I don't take kindly."

And Higgins called out the coach for what he was saying to his team.

"I referee Division 1 college basketball. So I hear some things," said Higgins. "But I haven't heard anything like that to a team. Like I heard it in a freshman basketball game. And I told him he needs to stop. It's embarrassing."

Fran McCaffery, John Higgins
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, right, is ejected from the NCAA college basketball game by official John Higgins during the second half against Northern Iowa, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Northern Iowa won 80-60. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

After the game, the player gave Higgins the finger. Higgins then ejected the player.

"And then the coach came up and he said, he was trying to try to help the situation," said Higgins. "Which he wasn't."

One umpire

Imagine being responsible for calling balls and strikes, then immediately needing to make a call on a close play at second as a runner attempts to steal.

Dan Masters, the Nebraska School Activities Association, said some low-level baseball and softball games have been forced to play with just one umpire.

He said they get "a lot" of new people to register as umpires.

"But we have a hard time retaining those same new people."

"I think it can be attributed to a couple of things," Masters said. "One, fan behavior, you know, unsportsmanlike conduct from the benches, from the stands. I think some of it could be attributed to...some coaches are hard on officials."

He said Nebraska schools have banned spectators from returning to games this year because of their behavior. An individual approached umpires after a game and was vulgar.

"Officials are going to make mistakes," Masters said. "So are teams, coaches make mistakes. But how you handle yourself in those situations says a lot about who you are and the character you have."

Thursday football games a first

Jason Christensen, an assistant six-man football coach in the Sandhills village of Arthur, Nebraska, said the impact of a lack of officials is beginning to be an issue. For the first time in Christensen's "many years" of coaching, the team found Thursdays on the schedule.

"We've just told our kids that let us take care of the fans or let us take care of the referees," Christensen said. "That's our job. You know, let us talk to them. Don't worry about it. You play the game, you got five seconds to get over that play and get to the next one."

Specialization in sports

Joan Theil of Oakland, Nebraska, says she's observed fans become more aggressive over the years at her childrens' games.

"As a parent, you always put it back on somebody like the officials, rather than your child," she said. "It's always been aggressive. I think it's become more so over the years with kids specializing in sports."

Higgins agrees specialization could be one of the many reasons why there's more aggression toward officials. The investment, and the stakes, are high.

"I disagree with the specialization on any sport," Higgins said. "I think all kids should go out and play all three sports. I really do. If you talk to college coaches out there and professional people, they want guys that are multiple sport athletes."

Why referees quit

Barry Mano, the founder of the National Association of Sports Officials, said surveys conducted by the association show the primary reason people quit officiating is "bad behavior directed at them."

"The behavior has worsened and we're seeing more (assault) incidents (toward officials) than I can ever remember in the 46 years of doing this," said Mano. "It's when we get the local high school, especially youth and rec, that we have the monster problem that we're now facing."

Mano says "we're a little bit of a less civil society."

Mano says he and others have been using "moral persuasion" to attempt to fix the problem. "This is the seventh interview I've done in two and a half days on this topic," said Mano. But it doesn't seem to be working.

"We get reports every single week at the National Association of Sports Officials about untoward behavior and physical accosting of sports officials," said Mano. "It never used to be that way."

So, if moral persuasion isn't working, what's next? He said league and tournament administrators need to raise the stakes.

"Beyond just penalizing the spectator slash parent and removing them from the contest for the next year, we're going to have to remove your kid for the next year. There it is. We're going to have to get tough."

'What do you know about basketball?'

John Higgins
Referee John Higgins during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game between Iowa State and Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. Kansas defeated Iowa State 92-81. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

About a week after the Council Bluffs game, Higgins was in attendance at Omaha Sports Academy his son refereeing a game of fourth to sixth graders.

He said some spectators became vocally frustrated with the referees, including his son.

"They were talking about a travel that the kid fell on the floor. He didn't have the ball. He didn't travel. And I tried to tell her that's not the rule," said Higgins. "And she said, what do you know about basketball? And I just kind of bit my lip. (I said) 'You need to be quiet. You need to just be a fan.'"

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