Last October, a report by Société Radio-Canada (SRC) noted that there was a shortage of referees in minor hockey. This report is corroborated by figures from Hockey Québec-Chaudières-Appalaches, which show that the number of federated referees for minor hockey has decreased from 800 to approximately 550 in five years. Based on our experience with several sports organizations, other sports are also experiencing a similar problem. But what’s behind this shortage of referees?
In the SRC report, François Talbot, who is the regional referee-in-chief for Hockey Québec-Chaudière-Appalaches states that “Each year, about 100 to 125 [new] officials join the group, but for various reasons, we lose 150 to 175.” This means that people are still willing to get involved in hockey as referees… but despite this relatively good news, an even higher number abandon the sport. Faced with this problem of retaining our referees, how can we succeed in keeping our officials?
The referee philanthropist
To answer this question, first let’s look at the initial reasons why a person decides to become a referee. First, there’s passion for the sport, as many officials will say that they do it to contribute and give back to their sport, since it had many positive effects on their life. Others decide to referee in order to remain involved and keep in contact with their sports community. There are also young people whose first job experience is officiating matches in exchange for a modest sum. Let’s just say that money is certainly not the primary motivation behind being a referee. In this context, we should see our referees more like philanthropists; these generous, selfless people who are more attracted by the human race and seek to help others through donations, works, etc. In short, this definition is a perfect fit for referees who, in their conditions, give a great deal of themselves and often even their own dignity. And in this respect, if we question our own behaviour, as parents, coaches, players, fans, etc. maybe we would realize that a good part of this shortage of referees has something to do with us.
Let’s just say it’s difficult to argue that this is not true when you hear testimonials from people like Sonia Clément, referee-in-chief of Hockey Québec in the Québec and Chaudière-Appalaches region who, in 2013 after 17 years in this position, came up with this observation: “It’s as if we [referees] were not human beings. In an arena, anything goes. In the street, the police will turn up, but it’s different in hockey.” On top of that, with the advent of social media, she emphasizes the increasingly personal attacks suffered by officials. And if you are a regular in sports environments, you have likely witnessed the threats, bashing and aggression experienced far too often by referees.
Let’s take a “lighter” look for a moment and imagine having to be escorted by the police after you finish your shift at work. That’s exactly what happens to referees who must be escorted to their car – and even their home – by the police, because of the serious threats they receive by doing their job. It’s unacceptable, but that is exactly what happens with our referees today. Unfortunately, many people would say that the threats aren’t serious. But what about the feelings of insecurity and fear experienced by the victims?
Others will attempt to justify the unjustifiable by saying that the referee deserved it because of the bad calls he or she made. Sure! So ask yourself how you would react if, each time you made a mistake, your boss or a customer bawled you out and practically wished you were dead? Worse yet, imagine your teenage son or daughter starting a new job and being berated by their boss for making a few mistakes! There is a very relevant parallel to be drawn when you realize that a great majority of our minor league referees are adolescents.
Ultimately, is it not normal for a referee, regardless of their age and the fact that this may be their first year as an official, to just give up if they regularly experience this kind of behaviour? How can we actually hope that these people decide to come back the next year when their passion for their sport has probably taken a beating? A consequence of this sad employee turnover: inexperienced referees who, naturally run a greater risk of making mistakes, suffering harsh treatment and attacks which make them abandon the sport… to be replaced by another inexperienced referee.
This unfortunate vicious circle impacts sporting environments another way as this lack of officials hasten their development by forcing them to officiate tournaments or important finals… where mistakes are tolerated even less. It’s worrisome when you realize that, quite often, even meaningless matches take on the importance of the Stanley Cup finals because of a few emotionally charged spectators. We hope that this lengthy plea on behalf of our referees will contribute to better recognition, more respect and greater tolerance toward our officials who play an essential role in our sports community. That done, they will regain their nobility and their desire to get involved.
To achieve this, we have to pay special attention to these people who, more often than not, choose this to become referees out of pure altruism. We are ALL responsible for recognizing the importance of their role and the next time a friend or relative blasts a referee, take the opportunity to remind them that there is a human being under that striped sweater. To this end, why not pay tribute to our referees by having your picture taken with them? #takeapicturewitharef
Report by Jean-Philippe Martin, Friday, October 19, 2018