The Sports Section - Zebras

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There are many ways to lose a sporting contest, but one of the worst has to be a bad call by the officials.  Is there any group in the wide world of sports that takes more abuse than these enforcers of the rules? 

Maybe you've commented on occasion that you could do the job better than the professional officials.  In case you want to follow through on that statement, here are some of the requirements and training necessary to become an official of a nationally recognized sport.

For almost every sport, patience is the key.  It can take years of officiating at the lower levels of competition before you might be considered for the big leagues. Experience at the college level, minor leagues or D-leagues is mandatory.  Also recommended is attending some type of training program offered by each sport.  Baseball, for example, has 3 umpiring schools, basketball has its Stripes University, and the NHL has training schools and camps. 

Here are a few key points for some of the major sports in the U.S.  Salary figures are based on available research, since most leagues don't make that information public.

Major League Baseball

Everyone has an understanding of the rules, but MLB is looking for people with confidence, a strong presence on the field, knowledge of the mechanics (where to go when the ball is hit), forceful calls (do you have a signature strike three call?), good use of the voice, hustle, good judgment and character.

All umpires who are hired start out in the minor leagues, where there are only 225 umpiring positions.  Most work in the minors 7 to 10 years before reaching the Major Leagues.  On that top tier level there are only 68 men in blue and the turnover rate is low.  The benefits may make the wait worth it, though.  In the minors, there are 140 games and umpires can make from $2,000 - $3,500 per month.

A move up to the majors means 162 regular games, but also spring training games in February and March.  Rookie umpires can earn about $120,000 annually, while the most experienced officials make up to $350,000.  Post-season games can net an ump an extra $20,000.  Add to the mix four weeks of paid vacation, health insurance, a pension, and a daily allowance of about $340 for expenses.  Because of the number of games played each season, umpiring in the majors is considered a full-time job.

National Football League

The most important requirement to be an official in the NFL is experience.  They are looking for people with a minimum of 10 years experience officiating football, with at least five at the collegiate or another professional level.  And it goes without saying that being in excellent physical condition is mandatory.

While they only work one game a week, NFL refs are required to spend 35-40 hours a week preparing for games, training physically, studying rules, and travelling for games.  As far as compensation goes, the average salary for an NFL referee is $173,000, with rookies starting at $78,000 and veterans earning up to $200,000.  But since there is no paid time off or health benefits, most refs have "day jobs" during the week.

National Basketball Association

Similar to the NFL officiating path, the NBA requires previous refereeing experience at the high school and college level and the semi-pros.  From there hopefuls can advance to NBA camps, the WNBA, and NBA D-leagues, where skills such as NBA play-calling, court presence and mechanics are stressed.  The goal is to be invited to participate in NBA summer leagues and/or the Development League, where training is offered in a more competitive environment.  Again, being in excellent physical condition is mandatory.

Officiating 82 games per year, the salary range for NBA refs is from $100,000 for rookies up to as much as $500,000 or more for the most experienced veterans. 

National Hockey League

The National Hockey League Officials Assocation advocates getting out there and officiating at any level to gain experience.  Like other sports, moving through the ranks from local hockey clubs, to college and semi-professional leagues is the way to go.  The NHL offers training schools, camps, and power skating sessions to help develop the skills necessary for officiating games.  A key factor, again, is physical fitness and superior skating ability.

The salary range for NHL refs is between $110,000 and $300,000 for an 82-game season.

Female Officials

Currently, there are no women officiating at the national professional level in any sport.  However, there is the possibility that will change in the NFL in 2014.  Sarah Thomas, the first female to officiate at the NCAA Division 1 level and the first to work a college bowl game, is currently in the NFL's developmental program.  She is hoping to become a line judge and has worked an NFL pre-season game this year.

In MLB, several women have worked at the Minor League level, and one has a done a spring training game, but there are currently no women in contention for an umpiring position.

The NBA has also used several women, with previous experience in the D-league and the WNBA, to call a couple games last season.  The NHL does not have any women officiating games at this time.

Dream Job

It would take a lot of patience and training to achieve the experience necessary to qualify for a high-level officiating position.  Don't forget to factor in some of the cons, such as irate coaches, players, and fans.  And standing on the field the entire game (baseball), and for all but halftime and intermission (football, basketball, hockey).  Be sure to include those wonderful weather days with snow, sleet, rain, and freezing temperatures.  Good luck!

Featured Titles

As They See 'em - a Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires by Bruce Weber (796.3573 W373A - 2009).  Weber, a New York Times reporter, tells of his season training to be an umpire, working spring training games, and interviewing dozens of professional umpires.  He gives us a look into the largely unknown inside world of Major League Officials.

Nobody's Perfect - Two Men, One Call and a Game for Baseball History by Armando GaLarraga (796.3570922 G146N - 2011).  Tigers' pitcher GaLarraga details the story of his quest of baseball's ultimate - a perfect game - which was derailed by umpire Jim Joyce's admitted blown call of what should have been the final out.  The Tigers' opponent for this infamous game - the Cleveland Indians!

The Worst Call Ever - the Most Infamous Calls Ever Blown by Referees, Umpires, and Other Blind Officials by Kyle Garrett and Patrick O'Neal (796.0922 G233W - 2007).  Sportswriters Garrett and O'Neal look back at some of the biggest mistakes officials have made in sports, from auto racing to curling.

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