Last strike: Number of high school sports officials dwindling

Softball umpires Roy Britz, left, and Brian Rimpela pose for a photo on June 1, 2021, in Lake Linden, Mich. Britz and Rimpela have more than 80 combined years of officiating experience. A study notes officials like Britz and Rimpela aren’t replaced after retiring, and half of officials are 55 years and older. (Eddie O’Neill/The Daily Mining Gazette)

LAKE LINDEN — It was a beautiful spring afternoon at the Boneyard softball field, and Brian Rimpela and Roy Britz are swapping tall tales near their pickups between softball games.

Rimpela took off his chest protector and other protective umpiring gear. Britz was putting his gear on. It was Britz’s turn to call the balls and strikes, with Rimpela in the field keeping a keen eye on calls in the field.

It’s a routine the two friends know all too well — with more than 80 years of combined officiating in a variety of sports as sanctioned by the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

Britz, a Houghton native, began donning the stripes in 1978 as a high school football and basketball official. He later dropped football and picked up volleyball and baseball/softball umpiring. He’s been a Swiss Army knife of officiating.

“You enjoy the sport and participating in it, and it’s a great feeling to give back to the community,” Britz said.

Rimpela blew his first whistle at a basketball game in 1981. Forty years later, he still officiates basketball as well as baseball and softball in the spring.

“I played basketball in high school (Chassell), and wanted to stay in touch with the local sports community,” he said. “As well, I knew there was a need for officials so I wanted to help out.”

He added that there were so many officials back then that it took him seven years of reffing junior varsity basketball games before he got onto the court for a high school matchup.

But times have changed.

A recent study entitled “The State of Sports Officiating 2020” surveyed 19,000 sports officials nationwide from 15 states and found that dedicated officials like Britz and Rimpela are not being replaced after they retire. The survey noted 45% of officials report that they have six years or less remaining in their careers. Fifty percent of officials are 55 years or older. Just 12 percent of officials are 34 and younger.

Dollar Bay native Rob Fay has been officiating in the area for around 20 years and he considers himself one of the younger ones. He does all the assigning for the local boys and girls basketball games.

“When I started there were a lot of Tech students who were doing this,” he explained. “Unfortunately they move away. It was a college job for them. Ultimately, if we do not have enough officials then we will not have sports. Everyone will suffer.

“We now have around 20 officials who will ref around 200 basketball games in a typical season,” Fay added. “At one time we had 40 (refs) which was a few too many. Ideally we need around 25.”

He said that the local officiating community is tight knit.

“We are a dedicated group who take their time on the court seriously,” Fay said. “We compare notes, we meet monthly, we train and watch video together. Most people don’t realize how much effort we put in behind the scene.”

Fay related that the dedication his crews show has paid off over the years as quite a few local official have been selected to officiate at state-championship games in a number of sports.

Among them was Fay himself who officiated at a semifinal state-tournament game this past season between Iron Mountain and Schoolcraft at the Breslin Center in Lansing.

“It was a big honor,” he said, “but it was a very different feel with the whole COVID situation. The Breslin Center with just 700 people was a strange experience. It was a little bit flat.”

He added that a good rivalry game between Hancock and Houghton with a gym of standing room-only can be just as energizing.

On the other side, there are plenty of nights when Fay and other officials leave the court disappointed due to verbal abuse by parents, fans and or coaches.

He is not alone. According to the 2020 study, 60 percent of officials leave the job because of verbal abuse by coaches and fans.

“We all have our horror stories,” said veteran basketball official and baseball umpire Steve Nordstrom. “I’ve been called every name in the book, and it has only gotten worse in my opinion because of social media. The internet is an easy place where fans can put the blame on officials.”

Nordstrom added that verbal abuse towards officials has gotten worse because parents are more invested in their kids and the mentality of winning at all costs seems to be the new priority.

“A line is crossed when a bad call or issue continues on social media well beyond the final buzzer or when it gets personal at the game or after the game,” Nordstrom said. “As well, if we are teaching our kids that the game was lost because of the officials, that’s crossing a line.”

For both Nordstrom and Fay, the joy of officiating, the teamwork and camaraderie on the court or field far outweighs the few bad apples in the stands or coaches on the benches.

“We have some great people here in our area involved in high school sports,” Fay said. “In my opinion, there couldn’t be a better community to give officiating a try. We have decades of wisdom from senior officials (like Britz and Rimpela) who are welcoming and willing to work with you and want you to succeed.”


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