In a culture so fascinated by sports, campuses across the country organize many kinds of games and competitions. Yet we often forget about the people who help make these games happen, the referees.

On any given night, a person can walk into the BYU-Idaho Center gym and see several games being played. However, what often goes unnoticed are the people with the striped jerseys and whistles that help make those games happen.

Whether it’s basketball, futsal, volleyball or another sport, they all require an official before the game can begin.

These officials, each have names and unique identities to their parents and friends, but to the players and fans, none of that seems to matter; they simply call them “Ref.”

Ref, of course, is short for referee. The name seems to carry a stigma throughout the sports world; refs are seen as a common enemy to either side in any sports matchup, regardless of their performance.

Many children fanaticize about having a free throw or penalty kick to win the game, with the crowd going wild. However, those moments are not possible without a ref to make the call.

Stephanie Compton, in her March 2016 article “Why do we hate refs?” expressed that refs are, “the single most hated people in sports.”

Coombs has been a referee for over three years, and with that experience, comes a few stories.

“Yeah, I was reffing a high school playoff game between two rival schools here in Idaho,” Coombs said. “The game was tight the whole way, and in the end, the visiting team hit a bucket to win with just a few seconds left. The home crowd was not pleased after the game, and me and my partners actually had to get a police escort out of the building.”

Ref Tate Gilbert looks on as a potential foul occurs in this semi-final match.

Ref Tate Gilbert looks on as a potential foul occurs in this semi-final match. Photo credit: Rhett Vasseur

Yelling, threats and insults all come with the territory of being a ref.

Playing or watching sports tends to evoke emotion from participants, and people sometimes get caught up in the moment.

Sports culture and participation in America is very popular. According to a June 2022 article in the Sports Business Journal over 232 million Americans participated in some form of sport or fitness activity in 2021.

Though the job of a referee often goes unacknowledged, it does not go unpaid. On-campus refs start earning around $12 per hour, and depending on skill level, can work anywhere between 5 and 20 hours a week.

At the professional level, however, officials advance through the ranks, hoping to officiate at their sport’s highest level.

According to Compton’s article, a typical ref officiating games at the lower end of the professional spectrum will make an average of $3000 per month during their nine-month season, totaling an annual average of about $27,000.

At the highest levels of sports, such as the NFL or MLB, Compton reported that officials make an average starting salary of $120,000.

However, it can take a referee decades of work to reach that upper echelon of officiating.

Once there, the pay and criticism only increase. Referees and umpires in professional sports have their calls and decisions analyzed by a host of media, players, coaches and fans. They look for any minor inconsistency to justify a game result.

Officials occasionally make mistakes in judgment or miss calls, some larger than others, that directly impact the outcome of a game.

In recent years, the number of errors has decreased with implementation of various forms of instant replay. This allows refs to review and analyze a situation if they are unsure about what decision to make.

Ref Emma Anderson makes a crucial call, much to the displeasure of a few players and fans.

Ref Emma Anderson makes a crucial call, much to the displeasure of a few players and fans. Photo credit: Rhett Vasseur

Recently, professional baseball has been at the forefront of the officiating story. Commissioner Rob Manfred made headlines in 2023 as the MLB debuted “Robot Umpires” in their minor-league games.

According to an ESPN article, Manfred said that baseball fans should expect not to see them in the MLB during the 2024 season, saying they still had some, “unresolved operational issues.”

Over the past few years, referees and officials in every sport have been experiencing shortages. One Las Vegas Optic reporter, Gabriel Myers, in a 2022 article called refs a “dying breed.”

Coombs is also in charge of the basketball referee assignments on campus at BYU-Idaho and said these shortages often make his job challenging.

“The challenge is not getting young officials to sign up, the real challenge is getting them to stick with it and develop their abilities after a bad experience,” Coombs said.

So, what makes being a ref worth it?

One young official on campus, Nathan Hitchcock, who suffers from a physical disability, says that, for him, it’s all about breaking down barriers.

“I guess I just wanted people to see that just because of my disability, I wasn’t going to let it stop me from doing what I love,” Hitchcock said.

There are many different reasons why people start refereeing, as is the case between Coombs and Hitchcock, but one constant reason among all refs is pure love for their sport.