This is a guest essay from Matt Boedy, a professor of English at the University of North Georgia who teaches in its First Year Composition program, as well as upper-level courses in writing and publication. He is the author of Murder Creek, chronicling the story of the last man to die in Georgia’s electric chair, and Speaking of Evil, an examination of the question of why God would allow for the existence of evil through a rhetorical prism.
Earlier this year, BTT published a piece on the people who thought it worthwhile to start a Georgia Hall of Fame dedicated to football.
You may not know this, but the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon has inducted a few officials in its history. There are 11 officials currently in the Hall.
I nominated another last year, my father.
For as long as I can remember – and I am 43 years old – my father has been a sports official. Baseball, basketball, and eventually he took up football. He has officiated at every level of sports from middle school to college. He toured this state for decades blowing whistles, taking balls off the mask, and yes, making a few mistakes.
My case to the Hall committee – which was denied this year but has two years of life left – included this reasoning. Of the 11 inductees, each had a leadership position in their official organization, like my father in the Georgia High School Association. Some served shorter than my father, some longer.
Two were awarded the George Gardner Award for outstanding service and dedication to officiating given out by the Georgia Football Officials Association. My father won that award in 2008. He also was named the Georgia All Sport Official of the Year in 2007 and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Official of the Year in 2009.
You may want to not induct many officials. And I am not asking for a whole hall dedicated to them. I just think there are more than enough people like my father.
For example, the National Federation of State High School Associations – an organization which writes the rules of competition for most high school sports and activities in the United States – gave a lifetime achievement award to a Georgia man who has spent 46 years officiating or working with officials in Georgia.
Awards and longevity aren’t the only criteria for the Hall. The nomination form calls for people who within the category of “contributors” have “served the athletic community with special distinction” in officiating and worked within the athletic community in its best interests in an outstanding manner for a minimum of twenty years.
But there is also the matter of “integrity, sportsmanship, and character.”
Understanding the life of an official
Let me tell you about my father. Maybe the Hall committee will read this. Or maybe it will cause you to change your opinions and withhold that snarky comment at your next Atlanta Braves game. Or even better, what I am going to say might convince you to put on a uniform. Stripes, blue, whatever.
Like so many officials throughout time, my father deserves the Hall because he has faced down too many irate coaches or players. His favorite thing to do with the coaches was to let them yell and scream and then after they were done, yawn.
And that obnoxious player? When my father tossed that person, he did it with flair: “Go meet your team at the Dairy Queen.”
I was ejected once from a middle school game for throwing a metal bat over a fence into my own dugout. My father was not an umpire that day. But besides apologizing to my team, he made me apologize to the umpires, too.
Like many of you I played high school sports and even had a chance to go to college on a baseball scholarship. But like so many kids who turn away from the family business, I didn’t follow in my father’s footsteps.
Sure, I tried.
During college, I was a baseball umpire for a city kids league one summer and the T-ball league another summer. I called a 7-year-old out for stepping on the plate while hitting. Because I had read that in one of my father’s many rule books. The coach looked at me like I was from another planet.
I did it for the money. While sports officials get paid, it is not a career like it is in the professional leagues. On working conditions, it may beat a grocery store or fast food. But not in salary.
In 2006 my father told his local newspaper in a profile on football officials that “you can make more per hour working at McDonald’s.” Back then, you could make about $55 to $75 for a high school football game. You do that math. In Georgia, now, football is at $120 per varsity game. You can see the rest of the sports and tiers here.
Yes, my father tried to get me into the officiating habit. I officiated with my father once. I tagged along with him for a summer basketball league game. He tried to get me, sometimes desperately, to call a foul. I was too busy watching the game.
The one time my father “switched sides” and coached, he decided it would be for my recreation league football team. He was a prized linebacker recruit out of high school and signed to a D1 school. (You can read what happened to our family after that here.)
I could blame our really bad record (did we go winless?) on my father watching not the game but the umpires. But it also could have been that I was terrible at quarterback, and he made us do push-ups on the field when we fumbled.
And I remember that because there were a lot of fumbles.
My father shockingly coached a single season for the Saints. Thankfully no one wore paper bags on their heads to our games.
Big games and big moments
Referee has a series of stories on “big games, big calls and the officials that worked them.” The pine tar incident, Bobby Knight throwing a chair, and the World Series earthquake game.
There were big games for my father. You may not know that being chosen for a state championship officiating role is an honor. My father has officiated nine State Championships and a high school baseball and football all-star game each.
But there were other games, other situations memorable for different reasons. My father was assaulted once as a basketball referee. I cried the whole way home. What 10-year-old wouldn’t? I watched it happen. It likely was one person who pushed and shoved and then it moved to a group. It was over quickly. But it felt like it happened in slow motion.
That was one game out of thousands. But three decades later I can still see the full crowd in that small gymnasium, a rivalry game, a man in black and white stripes booed as he ran up and down the court, something controversial before the buzzer, and his exit from the court blocked.
My father also refused at some point to referee church league games. No physical assault that I can remember, but the comments were less than Christlike.
The New York Times reported in April that this kind of behavior is killing officiating. Like it is killing teaching, nursing, and other other public-facing work. The officiating “shortfall has persisted for years, as rowdy parents, coaches and players have created a toxic environment that has driven referees away and hampered the recruitment of new ones, referees say.”
The Times noted that the pandemic “hastened an exodus of older officials who decided” that the low pay or verbal abuse was nothing compared to the “potential infection.”
My father likely got COVID from a football game, even though all his fellow referees wore masks inside and sat six feet apart as they prepared for that Friday night game. He was headed to another game when he found out he tested positive.
COVID has slowed him down. But my father hasn’t yet left officiating. In fact, though he turns 70 in August, he continues to train and mentor younger officials. He has toured the state for the last several years, toting a laptop filled with clips of controversial calls, split-second judgments, and yes, a few mistakes.
The training is intense. That summer league job I had, we had a two-hour session where I learned not to use “horns” to call two outs. The football training for the GHSA are called “thud” camps because you are on the field to hear and see live action. There are also extensive online rule clinics with written exams. My father trains officials by making these exams.
If you are starting out, sure, someone whom you know might offer up their home plate umpiring gear for you to use. But here’s a tip: umpiring gear is like a toothbrush.
Here is another tip: the amatuer baseball umpires turn their old ball caps backwards to put their mask on. The professionals have a different cap, one with a much shorter bill. And another: the amateurs put their shin guards on the outside of their pants. Or foolishly wear shorts. The professional wears gray pants, black shoes shined well, and black belt.
Getting a call from the Hall
But it takes more than professionalism to get that call from the Hall of Fame.
It takes dedication to the athletic community, such as in 1988 when my father restarted a beleaguered end-of-season basketball tournament for Richmond County high schools with proceeds benefiting the children’s hospital, where he worked.
Between its first year and 1995, the tournament raised about $5,000. He orchestrated corporate sponsors and a group of volunteers and sold entry tickets for a $1. He also routinely officiated those games for free.
My father also organized local doctors and nurses to perform thousands of mass sports physicals for high school sports teams across Augusta for more than 15 years for a low cost. Physicals are often cost-prohibitive to many athletes who have few means to pay. He performed hundreds himself. My mother, the nurse, joined in on many as well.
Lastly the final requirement for the Hall of Fame is an unwritten one. You won’t find it in the nomination form. And maybe I’m creating it out of thin air.
To get into a Hall of Fame you have to have more than great stats or accomplishments. You have to have that Hall of Fame buzz. At some point, people should say “there goes a future Hall of Famer.”
One early sense of this with my father is when years ago I accompanied him to a high school football playoff game somewhere south of Augusta. I sat in the press box next to the two guys doing the hometown radio show.
When a call was made they thought wasn’t fair against their team, they knew it would be called consistently for their team the next time. When the home team’s band played too loud during a play – which is against the rules – they knew my father would warn both sides. They knew that because they knew him. I don’t remember the score of that game, but nobody complained it was badly officiated.
More recently, we see what in my family we like to call “being the Pope.”
My father has attended many sporting events as a spectator in many parts of this state. As he usually does, he wanders out onto the field before the game starts or during halftime. Football officials know him. Lacrosse officials, they know him, too. It’s not as ritualized as someone meeting the actual Pope. But it has a certain sensation about it, at least from afar.
There goes a future Hall of Famer, I am sure they say when he walks away.