Last December, I went to Whitehall to referee my first two basketball games that were not in the Special Olympics.
Legendary Butte official Mike Anderson was my partner, and he walked me through a couple of junior high games.
Even though I assured her I was in good hands with Mike, my wife was worried as I got ready to leave for the games.
“What if people yell at you?” she asked, sincerely worried about my feelings.
“Have you ever read my email?” I replied. “Between emails, social media comments, online chat sites and anonymous letters, I have been called everything in the book. And that is because they don’t like my opinion or they just generally don’t like the person I’ve become.
“You really think someone getting mad over a block or charge call is going to hurt my feelings?”
Really, I have been called a narcissist, a racist, woke, an egomaniac, a buffoon, a moron, a joker and a clown.
And that was all just last week.
Yet, if you talk to someone about becoming a sports official, almost all of them will tell you that they cannot do it. Almost all of them — like 99.9 percent — will give the same reason why.
“I don’t want people yelling at me.”
When you think about it, that is a very irrational fear. It’s like the Jerry Seinfeld joke about people’s greatest fear. No. 1 is speaking in public, and No. 2 is death.
“This means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy,” Seinfeld said.
Maybe I’m wired differently, but I would much rather be standing at the podium than lying in a coffin.
That, though, puts me in the minority.
I am probably also in the minority in that I don’t give a rip if people yell at me. Oh, I don’t want my parents or wife yelling at me. But I could care less if a parent in the crowd wants to yell and call me names.
All you have to do is consider the source. Why would you care if you have the approval of someone who is going to act like that in public?
Not wanting angry fans yelling at you might seem like a legitimate reason to not officiate youth sports. But there are so many good things that greatly outweigh the occasional hothead in the crowd.
For instance, you can make decent money as a referee. If you are a college student, or parent of one, there probably isn’t a better part-time job than putting on the stripes.
In basketball, you don’t even have to officiate varsity games to make good money. In Montana right now, the going rate for subvarsity high school games is $48 per game. Generally, you work two subvarsity games during each assignment.
That means you head home with $96 — plus travel money — for about three hours of work, which isn’t really work. You can easily make $300 to $400 every week from early December through February.
Not a bad gig. It beats the heck out of stocking shelves, slinging drinks or selling burgers.
It beats the heck out of selling your plasma twice a week every week to make $500 to $600 a month.
You can make even more money if you are willing to work the youth tournaments that are held nearly every weekend.
As an official, you also get to watch some outstanding athletes compete from the best vantage point in the house. While you aren’t necessarily in the game, you get to be part of it.
And, really, you don’t get yelled at very much.
Sure, knucklehead parents will yell at you in the youth tournaments. But you hardly see any incidents in high school games, where they have school administrators there to throw out unruly fans.
I heard some fans yell at me during my first season as a basketball ref, and almost every time it made me laugh. The comment was almost always off base to a ridiculous degree.
Other times, I thought, “Well, he’s got a point. That might have been the wrong call.”
Not once did it hurt my feelings. Not once did it make me lose a wink of sleep.
I wasn’t even bent out of shape when some travel parents went way out of their way to call me a cheater. I just smiled because I knew they gave me something to write about, and that turned out to be one of my most-read columns.
Most officials will get yelled at throughout their career. If you work 40 years, though, you might have just a handful of incidents when you have to throw a fan out of a game. Really, that’s it.
You see every bad sports fan moment on social media, but most games go off without any real incidents. And when something bad happens, it is always the berserk fan who looks like an idiot.
Then the referee has a good story to tell.
Right now, we need sports officials more than ever, and we need them in every sport.
Last week, Butte High’s junior varsity baseball team could not go to Columbus with the varsity to play Sidney. The reason is a story we are going to hear more and more. Not enough umpires were available for the younger boys to play.
What a sad commentary.
Of course, part of that has to do with the weather. This spring has been brutally cold and wet, and whenever we have a nice day in the forecast, every softball and baseball team will try to play some make-up games.
Part of it is that we don’t have enough men and women stepping up to be sports officials. The reason for this is inadequate, too.
Yes, we need fans to start treating officials better. That is just common sense.
We definitely need more people living by the Golden Rule.
We also need people to realize that, unlike sticks and stones, yelling grandmas will not hurt you. Well, maybe in Anaconda. Otherwise, you are going to be safe.
If it is your own grandma yelling at you, then you might have a problem. If it is the point guard’s grandma, then it is her problem. She’s the one looking like a fool in public.
Officials definitely do not get treated like they should. But neither do fast-food workers.
I have seen a handful of incidents when officials were treated horribly and fans had to be ejected. But I’ve seen way more incidents of people assaulting — verbally and physically — teachers, bartenders, Little Caesars workers, government clerks and police officers.
Over the years, I have asked so many officials about being yelled at by fans. Almost every one told me that they either don’t hear it or that they just laugh it off.
So, if you are able-bodied and could use a few extra bucks in your pocket, join your local pool and start officiating games.
The young players need you. Plus, I found that the fun little gig is more rewarding than I ever imagined, so don’t let the fear of being yelled at hold you back.
After working one season, I can honestly tell you that the yelling is not nearly as bad as you might think. The yellers will make you laugh way more than they will make you cry.
Reading my emails, however, is a completely different story.
— Bill Foley, who cries a lot, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.