Mike Pereira had zero interest officiating a football game growing up, but he was a football fan and the sport had a hold on him.
In 1971, at the age of 20, Pereira was a college kid who needed fast cash.
“It was in East Palo Alto, Pop Warner football, and I didn’t want to do it, but heard it was 10 bucks a game, and oh, I changed my mind,” Pereira said, eyes widening, earlier this month to discuss his favorite topic outside of family: officiating.
“I went out to earn 30 bucks, and halfway through the first quarter, I fell in love with it. I enjoyed the game, the banter with the parents, even the screaming, and I’ve been involved in football every day since, either as an official or an administrator of officials or as a broadcaster.”
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Pereira and scores of others like him across the country didn’t get into stripes to be a glutton for punishment, but it’s there.
Fans at any event — we’re talking to you, moms and dads — take things so personally at events designed to be entertainment for their kids that they have convinced themselves the referees are out to hose their team. They curse referees, mock them and sometimes challenge them.
The footage of parents charging after umpires or wrestling officials across the land is striking. Players play a role, too. There was an inordinate amount of player brawls in high school football games in the Sac-Joaquin Section this past fall, more than any I’ve seen in my 30 years at The Bee.
“When players grow up hearing their parents yell and curse referees, they think it’s OK to do the same thing, so that has to change,” Pereira said.
The abuse referees, umpires and/or officials receive at all levels of play across the country has led to a troubling domino affect. There is a dire shortage of referees at the youth and high school levels.
This is a concern because without referees or officials, there can be no games, and who loses there? The players. In some parts of California, freshman and junior varsity sporting events have been postponed or canceled due to lack of referees or umpires.
One thought is to have parents work the plate or the bases, or the sidelines of football games, and imagine that sort of chaos.
“This is the only profession where before you even walk onto the court or baseball diamond or football field, everyone hates you, and then it gets worse,” Pereira said. “That’s part of the job, yes, but the abuse is out of control.”
According to the National Association of Sports Officials that polled nearly 17,500 officials, 75 percent walk away citing “adult behavior.”
The studies also show there are more officials who are 60 and older than there are 30 and younger, making for a considerable age gap to fill in the outgoing referees.
“We have to be concerned with these numbers,” Pereira said. “We have to change the mindset of the parents, and in some cases, the coaches, who think it’s OK to yell and threaten referees. It’s not. Referees are not the enemy. We don’t care who wins. We don’t care if there are scholarships, or so-called scholarships, on the line. They’re not.
“We’re doing the best we can. No referee makes a ‘make-up call’ to make up an earlier call. That’s the dumbest thing, but people believe anything.”
Pereira has launched a plan called “Officiate Sacramento” in an effort to use many of the same principles of his 2-year-old “Battlefields2Ballfields” program, a national program designed to get veterans — men and women — into a career as sports officials.
Pereira has a vested interest in the area. He grew up in Stockton and has called Sacramento home for years.
He officiated college football games and had a long career doing so in the NFL, first on the field and then as the league’s director of officiating. Since 2010, Pereira has been the Fox Sports rules analyst for college and NFL games, a voice for the fan in explaining why a call was made or not made.
Referees do make mistakes, Pereira said. Mistakes were made in the NFC championship game when a clear pass interference was not called.
“But we’re human, just like the players and coaches and fans,” Pereira said. “Any referee who blows a call, and I’ve blown calls, lives with it forever.”
Pereira will work with members of the Northern California Officials Association to help raise awareness and attract more officials.
Jim Jorgensen is an assigner for football and basketball referees in the Sacramento region for the NCOA. He’s alarmed with the declining numbers, and the complaints that referees are out to get players and teams.
“Four years ago,” Jorgensen said, “we had 400 officials for basketball. We now have 290. It’s a national issue, and everyone from the national federation of high schools to the NCAA and above is concerned.”
Russell Burch was once chased into the back tunnel of Arco Arena after a high school basketball playoff game, pursued by a seething parent. Burch still officiates. It’s what he does.
He has overcome health problems to work games, saying, “It’s important to me. We do the best we can.”
The California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for high school sports, urges coaches and administrators to stress calm in the stands and bleachers. Before every playoff game across the state, the public address announcer reads a list of sportsmanship stress points, including, “The game officials are neutral persons who represent the CIF, are certified by the NCOA, and who have been selected because of their demonstrated ability,” and, “The CIF reminds its fans that good sports are always winners.”
Fans generally don’t hear this.
CIF Executive Director Roger Blake wrote in a statement with Karissa Niehoff, the director of the National Federation of State High School Associations that was circulated nationally, “When you attend an athletic event that involves your son or daughter, cheer to your heart’s content, enjoy the camaraderie that high school sports offer and have fun.
“But when it comes to verbally criticizing game officials or coaches, cool it. Your support of the hometown team is needed. But so is your self-control. Yelling, screaming and berating the officials humiliates your child, annoys those sitting around you, embarrasses your child’s school.”
Back to Pereira. He wants to recruit people into his circle.
You want to officiate high school? College? The pros? It starts somewhere. It can start here. He said the bond between officials “lasts a lifetime. Only referees can understand what referees go through.”
“We don’t care if you haven’t officiated before, we want people who are eager to try,” Pereira said. “I want people who have the courage to do this. The ones who yell the loudest — the fans and parents — know the least. They don’t have the courage to officiate. It doesn’t take courage to berate a referee. That’s cowardly.
“No one wants to blow a call. I blew one once, and a guy came over, flipping me off, holding his young son. Disgusted me. We can change all of this.”
For more information on becoming a licensed official in Sacramento: ncoa.arbitersport.com