It’s a glorious day for baseball. The sun, high in the sky, casts short shadows across the diamond. My view from the third-base side of the infield grass lets me see the pitcher, the batter, and the runner on second, though never all at once.
The man on second drifts off the bag … too far, it turns out. The pitcher spins and throws to second, so quickly that the runner has no choice but to take off for third. I’m impressed by the pitcher’s move, but I’m supposed to be unbiased, because I’ll soon decide the runner’s fate. He’s caught in a pickle. I watch the ball go back and forth before the play reaches a denouement, with the runner diving into third ahead of the tag … or so it appears to me …
SAFE! I say — to myself, because I’m watching the play on my iPad, and there’s no one in my basement office to hear me.
The baserunner, now on his belly on the dirt behind third, looks with hope in his eyes at the real-world ump, whose head-mounted GoPro camera made my viewing of this play possible. Then the player, the field, and the base all dissolve. The app I’m using — RefReps, a first-of-its-kind interactive training app for sports officials — asks me: safe or out?
I hit safe … though if I’m being honest, I wish “I couldn’t tell; can you play it again?” was an option.
RefReps is designed to try to reverse a trend: the falling number of referees and umpires at the high-school level and across youth sports. It’s an American company working in American sports, but the dearth of referees is an international problem. In Canada, the CBC reported a drop in the number of hockey officials across the country, with some provinces seeing a decrease of more than 50 percent. In Australia, the number of officials has been steadily dropping, says Ash Synnott, managing director of the Officiating Collective, which was formed to help stop that decline.
The same problem persists across the U.S. Over the past six years, the number of registered high school officials has declined by 23 percent in Florida and 19 percent in Indiana. In Texas, there aren’t enough officials to cover every high school varsity football game if every school plays on Friday, so the state that made Friday Night Lights famous now also has Monday Night Lights, Tuesday Night Lights, etc.
And it’s going to get worse, because the average age of a high school official is in the mid-50s — and as refs age out, there are not enough younger officials to replace them. “We have more members over 60 than we do under 30,” says Michael Fitch, executive director of the Texas Association of Sports Officials.
Why do so many refs quit? The decline in sportsmanship is a major issue; in some areas, verbal and even physical abuse is the number one reason officials leave the job. Parents confronting refs in parking lots after games has become commonplace. Referee Magazine founder Barry Mano, who also founded the National Association of Sports Officials, said assaults on officials have happened often enough that the magazine devotes major coverage only to particularly egregious events.
“It’s just like if you’re going to go to a gym and work out. Referees are getting that muscle memory of watching film and saying, ‘Oh, that’s traveling.’ Then they can repeat that out on the court.”Natosha Harris, a Division I NCAA basketball referee
That atmosphere has turned refereeing, always partly a labor of love, into something that might not be worth the trouble. “Participation, which should be this beautiful point of positivity and possibility, has instead turned into a point of pain,” says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. “The kids aren’t impervious to that pain. And neither are the referees.”
For young athletes across the country, the consequences are palpable. Games are moved, postponed, or converted to scrimmages, with coaches, parents or fellow students serving as refs because none are available. Inexperienced refs are calling big games, where their mistakes are magnified, scrutinized and vilified. “They’re not skilled enough yet,” says David Pierce, a co-owner of RefReps and director of the Sports Innovation Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. “They’re just putting them out there because they’re a warm body.”
In fact, there’s a consensus that a lack of good training contributes to the referee shortage, creating a feedback loop of negativity that leads many to quit. Several sources described training as: you show up in a gym, read your rulebook, and listen to old men tell stories.
“A lot of times the officials are under-trained, under-supported, and they have a lack of resources,” says entrepreneur Kyle Armstrong, who teamed up with Pierce to create RefReps. Armstrong, a former ref himself, once worked as a golf pro, so he understands the value of good coaching. “If no one ever taught you how to write, if no one ever critiqued your writing, if no one ever gave you feedback,” he says, “you probably wouldn’t be very good.”
Lebowitz says better-trained referees could help youth sports thrive and reduce conflicts between officials and parents, coaches, and players. “The volume of those arguments, and the viciousness and the hate and the hurt that comes out of them, is so loud,” he says. “Maybe this is one way where we can use technology to lower that.”
Baseball and softball players spend countless hours in the batting cage. Basketball players shoot over and over. Football teams labor through two-a-day workouts. Refs have historically had nothing like that.
When Pierce, who owns a 5 percent stake in the company, was teaching a senior capstone class in sports innovation, he hatched the idea for an app that would make it possible for refs to practice — to make calls when they don’t count, when there is nothing at stake and nobody there to complain.
To use the tool — which works on a phone, tablet, or laptop — a ref-in-training calls up a video of a play, filmed on a GoPro camera strapped to a referee’s head. When an infraction occurs or a call is needed, the action stops, and a prompt asks for a decision.
After you make a call, an instructor appears on screen to walk you through the play, the relevant rules and any other pertinent information. A summary of the rules, issues, and tips then appears.
The app currently offers lessons in football (flag and tackle), baseball, softball, basketball, and wrestling. Armstrong plans to add soccer, volleyball, and lacrosse. RefReps launched in 2021; by late March 2022, Armstrong says, it had 2,460 accounts, some belonging to individuals and some to organizations, with commitments for 6,000 more in the fall. Indiana and Ohio’s high school athletic associations use the app, as do the University of South Carolina, Boise State University, and The University of Texas.
Natosha Harris, a 15-year referee in Division I NCAA basketball, oversees intramural sports at the University of Kentucky, where RefReps filmed some flag football videos for the app. She compared reffing a game without practicing to getting a driver’s license without ever having driven a car.
“It’s just like if you’re going to go to a gym and work out,” she says. “You come back two days later and you do another workout. You pick that weight up and your body goes, We’ve done this before.” Video training would work the same way, she says: “They’re getting that muscle memory of watching film and saying, Oh, that’s traveling. Then they can repeat that out on the court.”
Other organizations, such as the Texas Association of Sports Officials, have attempted to use ref’s-eye-view video as training, but they haven’t gotten far as RefReps has. Videos are shot with cameras affixed to glasses, and Fitch and Harris separately describe them as far too chaotic to be useful. Indeed, RefReps used cameras mounted on glasses to record its first videos. “It was awful,” Armstrong says. “It was all over the place.” He switched to a GoPro camera, and the images were crystal clear.
While I’m no rules expert, as a sportswriter for 22 years and sports fan long before that, I thought I knew what to watch for. But when playing with RefReps, I learned that I didn’t know jack squat. I struggled to make snap decisions, I got flustered, and I didn’t have the complicating factor of making those calls in front of stands packed with deeply partisan fans.
I now have deeper respect for umps.
I mean, I’m still going to complain about them, often and loudly. But at least I’ll respect them more.
Mano, founder of the National Association of Sports Officials and Referee Magazine, gives a speech he calls, “You Gotta Love It When They Boo.” Nobody celebrates correct calls, but man, do we lament wrong ones. We love to dissect and dispute every call even remotely in question, and plenty more that aren’t. That’s part of the fun of sports: We can’t understand how so many zebras can be so blind. We’d feel bad for them, if they didn’t so consistently screw our team over.
Which brings me back to the play at third.
I was wrong. When the instructor followed up the safe-or-out question with an explanation and replayed the video, I saw that the runner was out. I’ll practice self-care and say it was close, but HA! It wasn’t. I would have been booed.
I would not have loved it.
When using RefReps, I was nowhere near the (approximate) industry average of 90-plus percent accuracy. Sometimes, like with the guy at third, I simply saw wrong. More often, I didn’t see at all. On several plays, I didn’t even recognize that a call needed to be made, and I only learned an infraction occurred when the instructor explained it.
In one of the football videos, a player was flagged for lining up too far off the line of scrimmage. The instructors showed exactly where the player should have been, which was nowhere near (relatively speaking) where he was. I hadn’t known know to look there. On replay, it was like walking through my living room and not seeing an elephant sitting on my couch. I doubt I’d ever miss that call again.
Using RefReps reminded me of the months I spent using DuoLingo to try to relearn enough of my high-school German to speak German with Germans in Germany. If I got the answer right, DuoLingo made a happy beep. If I got it wrong, the noise sounded sad. It was addictive: the more I played, the more (God help me) I wanted to impress the little DuoLingo bird.
The experience of using RefReps was like that, even down to the happy beep. I wanted the instructors — obvious authority figures with great command of their professions — to think I knew what I was doing. Now that I think of it, it would be hilarious (and appropriate) if the app booed when I got a call wrong.
Armstrong says DuoLingo was one of more than 100 learning management systems RefReps’ developers studied when they created the app. He wanted the learning to be experiential and interactive, provide feedback and be based on real-world situations, not simulations. (An accompanying classroom curriculum, RefPreps, teaches high schoolers the basics of officiating.)
Armstrong did not cherry-pick plays based on whether they could be used as obvious teaching moments. The videos aren’t just filled with close, challenging, or obscure rules calls. They also include lessons in how to officiate a simple groundout, where to inbound the basketball, even where to stand to get the proper view, plus the proper technique to get there. An in-the-works upgrade will keep track of what calls you get wrong so you can work on improving them. If the app realized that I repeatedly got holding calls wrong, for instance, it would feed me plays involving that infraction.
And RefReps includes lessons on something I didn’t expect: confidence. I always thought that when umps got super-demonstrative in making close calls, they were showing off. That might be true, but their exaggerated motions also telegraph certainty, and the app teaches that, too — tracing users’ hand motions and stressing the importance of authoritative body language. You need to believe in your call and act accordingly. When I wasn’t sure about that call at third … um… safe, I guess … everyone would have known it, and they would have trusted me less because of it.
As Harris put it, players, coaches and fans don’t want you to think you got the call right. Even on the high school level, they want you to know.