Chris Ellingson has been a high school basketball referee for 15 years and a baseball and softball umpire for 12 years in Minnesota. He’ll never forget coming out of the dressing room, after waving off a basket at the buzzer, to three people holding a video camera yelling at him about the call. He remembers every detail from the experience, but he keeps the school, the teams and the names of the people out of the story.
“You don’t know what people are capable of or what they’ll do, especially when their kids are involved,” Ellingson said. “They’re invested and they think they have quite a bit to say. They think it’s life and death and it’s a game.”
There were 8,847 high school officials in Minnesota in the 2010-11 season. Last season, there were 8,334. The common belief is the loud voices from the stands have gotten louder, but there’s more to the dip in numbers.
Not that the loud voices help.
Micaela Mjoness’ dad always joked she became a hockey official at the age of 11, so she could learn how to get around the rules. That’s wasn’t entirely true. She loves hockey and wanted to learn more about it.
Mjoness had her dad sit in the crowd for a 10-and-under game she was officiating at the age of 17, so he could hear what people yelled at her. He heard the yells and even saw one person banging against the glass.
“I’ve heard every homophobic slur in the book,” Mjoness said.
Michael Martin remembers a few years back leaving to officiate a football game in the rain and snow and returning home 11 hours later with a check for $65 for his work. That paid for his shirt. He wouldn’t say what words were used, but he’ll never forget the derogatory emails he received from parents after an event.
“You want to give kids the best opportunity they can have to have a fair game and safe game and there's a lot of satisfaction in getting that for them,” Martin said.
Ellingson, Mjoness and Martin are from all walks of life. Ellingson is 41 years old, grew up in Borup, Minn., and has four kids ages 18, 10, 8 and 5. Martin, 59, grew up in Pelican Rapids, Minn., and has a daughter and a son, both of whom are teachers. Mjoness, a 21-year-old Moorhead High School graduate, will be graduating from North Dakota State in December and plans to become a high school hockey official with the Minnesota State High School League the second she can.
They each ref for different reasons. Ellingson, the principal at Hawley Elementary, enjoys getting paid to exercise, joking he’s too short and fat to play sports anymore. He loves the relationships with other referees, coaches and athletes. Martin, the Hawley High School principal, claims he’s the fastest back judge in the state of Minnesota based off no real proof. He made a career working with kids, so reffing is another way to do that. Ten years ago, the former college football player decided he wanted competition back in his life. Mjoness simply loves hockey.
Some referees said crowd control by athletic directors or educating crowds about the rules could help. Mjoness interned with Moorhead athletic director Dean Haugo last spring. She watched as he had multiple events each day to go to.
"I got to see how hard it is to supervise crowds," Mjoness said. "The only way you can see how difficult something is is by being in their shoes or skates. The only way you can change things is put yourself in those shoes. Let people in the crowd try officiating."
They each have stories about people in the crowd yelling at or pursuing them after a game, but there’s more to the frustration of a high school referee in Minnesota than the loud voices in the crowd. Across the border, North Dakota high school referee numbers are increasing. In the 2012-13 school year, North Dakota had 1,335 high school referees. The number dropped to 1,264 and 1,257 the next two school years, but went up to 1,462 and 1,471 in 2015-16 and 2016-17, respectively.
“There are a lot of advantages across the river," said 32-year-old Cody Baxter, who was a high school basketball referee for more than a decade.
North Dakota high school referees have a set price for every game and mileage. Minnesota doesn’t have a standard payment, which means referee associations spread across the state are bargaining with schools to get contracts. For example, the Lake Area Officials Association in Detroit Lakes, Minn., could be competing with the Red River Valley Officials Association in Dilworth, Minn., for a contract with a local high school.
“A lot of schools take the lowest bidder,” Baxter said. “Rather than officials banning together as one and requesting a standard of pay, it’s the ones willing to undercut that get the contract. At some point, it’s not worth your time or energy. There was always one that was getting a lot of games because they were willing to accept less pay. Schools have a lot on their plate, so they can save 20 or 30 bucks per contract and it's understandable why they do.”
Officials are more than aware the money is never going to be good. A varsity football game in North Dakota will go for $81 plus 54.5 cents per mile for the driver. According to Martin, it's somewhere between $85 and $95 in Minnesota plus mileage, but that depends on what an association bargains with a high school.
Referees in Minnesota have to pay a registration fee to cover insurance and rulebooks, view an online meeting in every sport for new rules and points of emphasis and pass an exam. Once every few years, they have to do a mechanics clinic and concussion training. If they are new, they have to be part of mentorship and have a background check done.
Time spent is rarely going to add up to a profit for a high school official in any state.
"Football you might work nine or 10 games a year and you're not going to clear $1,000," Martin said. "You have to pay dues, pay for your uniforms. It's just about a wash."
The money will never be life-changing, but for high school officials in North Dakota there's less hassle. The politicking doesn't end with contracts in Minnesota. Officials in Minnesota are graded by coaches. These grades are a factor on who gets to officiate state tournament games.
Baxter grew up in Hawley, Minn., and lives in Moorhead, reffing high school basketball in both North Dakota and Minnesota. He’s a physician’s assistant at Essentia Health in Moorhead and married with two young kids. He wanted to be a basketball referee because his dad did it and he loved basketball. He quit reffing high school because he's focusing on reffing college basketball in the area.
"There's a little bit of fear handling coaches the way we should knowing they can rate you," Baxter said. "There's no rating in North Dakota. It's stupid that we're afraid to call a technical foul in Minnesota. I called more in my first year in college than seven or eight years in Minnesota."
North Dakota playoff officials are also selected by coaches, but in a vote midway through the season. For Minnesota, there's a star system that a coach can use after every game.
"We haven't had a big push for (the Minnesota star system)," said North Dakota High School Activities Association assistant director Justin Fletschock, who is in charge of officials. "A lot of people understand that rating depends on what people win or lose."
MSHSL sees no problem, no need for changes
The MSHSL has no fear with the numbers.
"If you look at the numbers, there isn't really a substantial drop in the last few years," MSHSL coordinator of officials Jason Nickleby said. "If you go back when it was those higher numbers that's pretty typical when the economy takes a dive. That's been pretty typical when people start looking for other ways to make some money. If you look at it, 2010 is right in that neighborhood right after the housing market went south. That's where we had an uptick."
There's also no changes on the horizon for how things are done in Minnesota. Nickleby argued there's more schools and more sports in Minnesota than North Dakota, so it's easier to just leave the payment for officials up to individual schools. He also said the rating system for officials is rarely bad and will not cost them assignments.
"We can always use more officials. That will always be the case," Nickleby said. "There's a certain part of the state that's tougher. A soccer game in the St. Cloud or Moorhead part of the world is a little bit of a challenge. When you get to border towns then it becomes a challenge when schools are competing with other states. I haven't heard from any athletic directors or associations telling me that it's at a crisis point."
Mjoness says she will not hesitate to become an MSHSL official as soon as she graduates from NDSU.
"I keep doing it because I love the game that much," Mjoness said. "I'll admit there's a point where I don't want to renew. If I'm already in that position as a college student, I can't imagine going forward. A lot of us grew up with these sports. We do it cause we love them."