Teenage referees have tough job

Since FHSAA requires two paid officials, schools usually hire youngsters to be line judges.

Published October 15, 2006

CLEARWATER - Imagine this scene: It's an area high school baseball game that's tied in the seventh inning. There's a bang-bang play at home, but instead of an umpire making the call, it's a teenager from the home school.

As absurd as it sounds, it's a reality for area volleyball players.

"It's certainly not ideal to use people other than paid referees, but that's just how it's always been at this level," Indian Rocks Christian coach Mark Foster said.

Volleyball matches, as mandated by the Florida High School Athletics Association, must have two paid officials present. However the two line judges, usually volunteers, are rarely accredited referees.

"I've seen everything from 10-year-old kids to 60-year-old adults as linesmen," Foster said.

Most schools have a pool of people who have expressed interest in working the lines. The host school then selects two for a match, but it's not easy to be impartial when the line judges may be wearing that home team's colors.

"It really can put (line judges) in a bad position," Countryside coach Kaylyn Bayly said. "I mean for a kid to make a call on a bang-bang play can put a lot of pressure on them, and then what? They have to go to school the next day with that."

Sports such as track and field utilize volunteers to do indisputable tasks like measuring a long jump. But the key difference between volleyball and other sports is these volunteers need to make snap judgment calls.

"You get a girl who spikes the ball 100 miles per hour, and it can be pretty tough to call if it's in or not," Pinellas County athletic director Nick Grasso said. "I'd imagine it's pretty tricky."

It's even trickier if the phone rings. Foster said in a match a couple of years ago, a teenage line judge answered his cell phone with the match going on.

"Craziest thing I think I've ever seen at a match," Foster said.

And with district tournaments kicking off this week, volunteer line judges will still be used in public school matches until the semifinals and finals, when the FHSAA states there must be four paid officials.

Some private schools, however, are not taking the chance of a match being swayed by a volunteer. Foster said it was decided at the district planning meeting that the host school for IRC's district, Keswick Christian, would pay for four officials in all district tournament matches.

"Ultimately, it's not fair for the (line judges) and not fair to the players," Bayly said. "But the bottom line is money."

And because of financial concerns, Grasso said it's unlikely the system will be replaced anytime soon. The county's policy is to pay for the officials as mandated by the FHSAA.

"Financially, it would be just too cumbersome to put four officials out there for every match," Grasso said. "So it's up to the schools to use people that will be professional in their judgment."