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    The Most Demanding, Essential and Thankless Job in Sports

    By John Chen–

    We’ve seen it on live TV for as long as sports have been televised: players, managers, coaches, fans and even team owners chastising, complaining, berating and even charging the men and women whose job it is to act as fair and impartial mediators to the games we love. How often have we seen baseball managers kicking dirt at various home plate umpires, followed by a barrage of expletives, and then get thrown out of the game? Even fans have perfected mean-spirted chants directed at the men and women in blue, black and white stripes.

    Being an umpire, referee, linesman or official is truly a thankless job. Everyone complains and there are very few appreciative affirmations. But these hard-working men and women are a necessary and integral part of just about every sport from the professional ranks to the local recreational league.


    Alex Alexander has been a fast and slow pitch softball umpire for local colleges, high schools, San Francisco Parks and Rec as well as the LGBT leagues since 2000. Somewhat of a superwoman, Alexander was a firefighter for the city of San Francisco for 16 years—responding on her first day to a fatal shooting. Throughout her career she fought countless fires, including a destructive 5-alarm blaze at Fisherman’s Wharf. Her tremendous ability to handle pressure-filled and life-threatening circumstances made Alexander the perfect candidate to deal with hysteria, mania, incoherence, inexorability and drunken stupor exhibited by, you guessed it, players, coaches, managers and fans.

    Alexander loves to play softball, and on a faithful day in 2000, she questioned an umpire’s strike zone, which was clearly erroneous, wink, wink. A little hot under the collar, that umpire issued a challenge to Alex: “You think you know the game? Why don’t you become an umpire?” The rest is history!

    Armed with an intense yet calm and cool personality, Alexander has quelled many heated challenges from players, coaches and fans. “Straight men often test me because I am a female umpire,” she told me for the San Francisco Bay Times. “But once they realize I know the game and can stand toe to toe with them, they pay me respect, and that’s rewarding.” Having seen Alexander in action, I can tell you this: she is one umpire you do not want to mess with!


    Luke Tao, a nursing student, recently became a certified up-ref (i.e., the lead referee) for volleyball officiating matches at North America Gay Volleyball Association (NAGVA) tournaments. Unlike Alexander, Tao never wanted to be a referee. He just wanted to play, but volleyball is the one sport where competing teams are required to officiate other matches in the tournament. Imagine having to officiate against teams that you just lost to, teams that previously did a poor job calling your match, or teams of your friends as well as teams of players that you are not particularly fond of. Tao tells me it is easy to be vindictive, to favor your friends or to punish your foes, but at the end of the day, it is about sportsmanship and fair play. The key to being a good ref is being calm, consistent and sticking to decisions.


    Brad Oleson loves the game of football. Becoming an official gave him the opportunity to be close to the game long after his playing days. Starting out by officiating flag football in 2004, Oleson eventually forayed into calling high school and youth tackle football games. Oleson explains that coaches oftentimes lose their cool and will repeatedly get in his ear for the same things. With a sly grin, he has some clever verbal comebacks. This infusion of humor often does the trick, allowing the officiating crew to get back to “administering the game as smoothly, efficiently and effectively as possible,” according to Oleson. Now the head referee of the San Francisco Gay Flag Football League (SFGFFL), he teaches his crew to always remain calm, to not be intimidated and to stay within reason.

    Sports is a funny thing. It brings out the best in us and sometimes the worst. Without dedicated people like Alexander, Tao and Oleson to officiate and calm us down, there would be hourly fistfights, minute by minute verbal expletive exchanges and utter chaos on the field. So, let’s take a minute to thank them for administering our games and for keeping us in line, rational and humanly behaved, even if we may not always agree with their egregious calls favoring our opponents that not only cost us the game and bragging rights, but also somehow that we are better than the other guys!

    John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball and football teams.