The lack of female officials in the IHSA is striking.
Forty-one percent of the 41,264 Illinois high school basketball players in 2016-17 were girls, but only 5 percent of 5,505 basketball officials were female. In softball, all 15,242 players were girls, but only 7 percent of the 2,319 umpires were women.
Why don't women want to officiate at the high school level? Veteran official and Peoria area assignor Don King has a theory.
“I’d say it’s the same reason that men get out. They don’t want the aggravation,” King said. “They play on a travel team and see behavior of coaches and then turn around and say, ‘Why would I want to umpire? My coach was a first-class jerk in travel ball, or even in high school, so why would I want to go umpire and listen to this crap?’”
During her four years as a high school basketball official, Rachel Lenz saw women in stripes were viewed and treated differently than their male counterparts. Sometimes it’s innocent.
“I remember oftentimes when I would go to games in smaller towns,” Lenz said, “ and 80 percent of the time an older gentleman in the crowd would approach me and be like, ‘Oh, you’re a female and you’re officiating? I’ve never seen a female ref before.’”
Other times it’s negative.
“That mindset — it was comical to me — expands across the unruly crowd members you have that would look at your male counterparts and say, ‘Hey, you have to help her out (because) she’s not getting her calls.’ And that’s kind of a struggle, especially as a young female official. It creates a lot of disbelief in yourself and, when you’re starting out you’re going to make mistakes. (The fans) have to understand that for us to learn from our mistakes they’re going to have to let us make the wrong call.”
Lenz, 30, executive director of the Macomb Park District, is now a college official and says that there is not as great of a disparity between male and female officials. She has even worked on all-female crews.
Some officials say the IHSA needs to take a more forceful role in empowering officials.
“There’s different rules for a different set of levels,” said Patti Spietz, a former college volleyball official and current high school official. “The IHSA follows the rules of the NCAA to a certain extent. I’d say they’re behind on some of the rules. If there was just one comprehensive set of rules ...”
Said Lenz: “The NCAA has recognized that problem and empowered us to address it quickly. Coaches, if they toss a clipboard or wave their hands at us and make it demonstrative, as soon as they let a curse word fly that is directed at us, they get (a technical foul),” Lenz said. “If we don’t address it, then we get in trouble because (the NCAA) is trying to make the game more enjoyable for everybody, and help in retention with officials.
”I think that’s a step that maybe the IHSA could really look into — empowering officials to take that step and realize that a technical is just another call and it empowers you to clean up the game.”
As a former collegiate and professional athlete, Spietz continues to stay involved by officiating because of her love for the game. When she officiates, she’s helping players learn the game, and trying to recruit officials.
“I always say to them, ‘You need to think about being an official because there aren’t a lot of women and you get to give back to the sport,’” Spietz said. “I feel like I’m giving back to my sport and it keeps me in the game.”
Lenz has some advice for sports fans — especially parents — that could help make the games more enjoyable for everyone, while also serving to retain quality officials.
“If I could appeal to anyone — and I’ve had to do this with my own parents, when it comes to talking to officials at sporting events — it would be to remember that these people that are out there are working for your son or daughter,” Lenz said. “We have every best intention and that’s why we choose to go on the court. Remember we are human with jobs and families and probably children of their own, and we really do this for the love of the game.
“We’re going to make mistakes. Just like in basketball (players) miss shots, we miss calls. Sometimes we blow them and (fans) won’t even notice that we’re walking over to the coach and saying, ‘Coach, we missed that.’ We own it, which is usually why the coaches don’t react after certain plays. We’re just as human as the next person, but we want to try our best and we want to succeed.”
Aaron Ferguson can be reached at 686-3207 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Sports_Aaron.