When Culley Phillips stepped off the football field last fall, he was ready to leave behind 36 years as a referee.
The official reason for retiring was physical: He had to have hip replacement surgery.
But Phillips, 67, admits he was also tired of the verbal abuse from coaches, fans and players.
“I felt great relief when I walked off that field the last time,” Phillips said. “The vitriol just increased over and over through the years.”
Phillips knows first-hand about how far the abuse can go. In 2007 he was assaulted by a coach from Wylie during a seven-on-seven football game in Grapevine. The coach was sentenced to 15 months and a $680 fine.
While his assault came at the hands of a coach, Phillips said last week’s attack on a referee by two San Antonio John Jay High School players illustrates how the abuse has intensified.
The incident has emerged as a hot topic on social media and sports talk radio as people debate the reasoning behind the players’ actions, the role of an assistant coach who has been placed on paid leave for allegedly suggesting that the referee “needs to pay for cheating us” and what punishment would be appropriate for those involved.
The Northside school district in San Antonio is treating the incident as an assault on a school official.
“Over 36 years of football officiating it just got worse and worse,” Phillips said. “It all starts with the coach.”
‘No room for that’
Phillips’ concerns are echoed by others, including longtime official and Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson, and Michael Fitch, executive director of the Texas Association of Sports Officials.
Anderson, a veteran official who now works as a replay referee for the Big 12 and Mountain West conferences, said he never favored criminal prosecution of an on-field act — until now.
“This official could have been permanently injured or disabled,” Anderson said. “For the first time, I think law enforcement should get involved. There’s just no room for that.”
The men that are coaching those teams lose perspective. What in the world are we showing these kids? This is unacceptable.
Paul Galvan, retired Fort Worth athletic director.
As president of TASO, Fitch declined to speak specifically about Friday night’s incident.
But he said nearly half of the first-year officials don’t return for a second year, largely due to fan behavior.
“I do think coaches are getting more aggressive,” Fitch said. “The physical aggressiveness usually doesn’t come in high school games. It’s usually at the sub-varsity level where we have incidents where there are fewer barriers between referees and fans.”
There was one recent incident in which an irate parent hopped in the back seat of the officials’ car and started berating them.
“Fortunately, that one didn’t become physical,” Fitch said.
There was also an incident in which a referee was followed after a game, so he drove straight to the police station rather than going home.
I never thought I would see the day where we had shortage of football officials in the State of Texas.
Michael Fitch, executive director of the Texas Association of Sports Officials
“I wish I had the answer,” Fitch said. “I know there’s got to be some changes. If not, you’re going to turn on the lights on Friday night and nobody in stripes is going to be there.”
Paul Galvan, a retired Fort Worth school district athletic director and accomplished college basketball official, said it’s imperative that coaches keep things in perspective.
“What in the world are we showing these kids? This is unacceptable,” Galvan said.
‘Going off the field in handcuffs’
Aledo athletic director Tim Buchanan said there’s no excuse for players attacking a referee.
As a former coach, Buchanan admits he was hard on officials when he felt they made the wrong call.
But he said coaches have to instill sportsmanship in their players in the way they treat officials.
He said the incident involving the San Antonio players “is embarrassing for football in the state of Texas that it happened. It is embarrassing for Texas high school football.”
He was also critical of Northside school district officials for raising the possibility that the referee who was hit by the two players may have used racial slurs against them.
“No way, no how should a professional go in and start making excuses,” Buchanan said. “I have never in my life heard an official make a racial slur as a coach, player or athletic director.”
When Buchanan faced an allegation of bullying in 2013 after Aledo beat Fort Worth Western Hills 91-0, he said school officials looked into the incident before making any comments.
“When I got accused of bullying, my superintendent didn’t say a word until he investigated it to see if I had bullied anybody,” Buchanan said.
But if a player targets an official at a game in Aledo, law enforcement will get involved.
“I’ve already talked to Coach [Steve] Wood and our school district police chief,” Buchanan said. “If our police chief sees something like that happen, that player is going off the field in handcuffs.”
It is embarrassing for football in the State of Texas that it happened. It is embarrassing for Texas high school football.
Tim Buchanan, Aledo athletic director
‘Do your job right!’
The problems with fans, players and coaches harassing officials often starts early.
Ann Hicks, who has been a soccer referee for 22 years, wrote a Star-Telegram guest column in 2012 that was critical of fan behavior.
“Why are they so mean-spirited, hateful and critical?” Hicks wrote. “All their hatred, frustration and profanity are directed at the officials. It doesn’t matter whether the referee is young and new or seasoned with experience.”
Three years later, Hicks said little has changed. With between 250 and 300 games every weekend in the Arlington Soccer Association, young referees are often asked to officiate games between 7- and 8-year-old kids.
“You have a grandparent knocking on 80 screaming at a young ref: ‘Do your job! Do your job right!’” Hicks said. “They’re looking at the game like it’s life or death and they overreact and run kids out of the program.”
The solution has been trying to place an experienced official with young referees at each game but that’s not always possible. Ironically, high school soccer games are typically far more sedate.
“The parents know more about the game,” Hicks said. “They also know that some of their sons and daughters are competing for college scholarships so they tend to act more professional.”
Most youth leagues have a code of conduct saying that players, parents and coaches must agree to treat officials with respect.
Some take it a step further.
Brett Smith, president of Arlington Southwest Little League, instituted a policy in 2010 that wouldn’t tolerate abusive verbal abuse toward umpires from coaches, players or family members.
“When we started out, we simply said we were not going to tolerate bad behavior,” Smith said. “That first spring in 2010 we had only 300 players but we got rid of six coaches immediately on the spot. Keep in mind, without a strong board you can’t do anything.”
The executive committee of the University Interscholastic League met Wednesday in Round Rock to discuss the attack by two John Jay High School players on a referee. Several complaints were made to the committee, including that the hit was prompted by something an assistant Jay coach said and that it was preceded by racial slurs from the targeted umpire. Any state disciplinary action against the players or school won’t come before the committee’s next meeting Sept. 23. — The Associated Press