Umpires and Referees


Exploring this Job

A great way to find out if you enjoy being an umpire or referee is to officiate for a Little League team or at a summer camp. Locate a sports official in your area and set up an informational interview. Also, you should continue to watch and participate in sports to learn more.

The Job

Every sport has its own set of rules and regulations. Even the same game played on different levels may have its own distinct rules. For example, in professional basketball, the team in possession of the ball has 24 seconds to take a shot on goal. On the college level the shot clock is set at 35 seconds for men's competition and 30 seconds for women's competition, and in the game played by most high school teams, there is no shot clock at all.

Sports officials are the experts on the playing field. They know all the rules for the sport they officiate. They observe players while the ball or puck is in play and penalize those who break the rules. They are the decision makers and the arbiters of disputes between the competing teams.

When an official spots an infraction of the rules, they blow a whistle to stop play. The penalty is communicated to the official scorer, the penalty is assessed, and play continues. In some sports, officials may use video replay to confirm whether a call is correct or not.

Major League Baseball utilizes four umpires for each game (except in the playoffs, when six umpires are used). The home plate umpire works behind home plate and is responsible for determining whether each pitched ball is thrown within the strike zone. The home plate umpire also rules whether runners crossing home plate are safe or out and keeps track of the ball/strike count on each batter.

Other umpires are responsible for the three bases. They decide whether runners are safe or out at their respective bases. First- and third-base umpires also must observe whether a ball, batted to the outfield, lands on the playing field within the foul line.

It is not uncommon for a single official to work a Little League game. When this is the case, the umpire stands behind the plate. The umpire is responsible for calling balls and strikes, keeping track of the number of outs and the ball/strike count, watching the foul line, and ruling on runners at the bases.

Three officials work National Basketball Association games. They are more active than baseball umpires. Basketball referees run up and down the court, following both the ball and the players. They must not only watch the ball, but must keep an eye out for illegal contact between players.

If three officials are supervising the game, one stands near the basket of the offensive team, another stands at the free throw line extended, and the third stands on the opposite side of the court (from the second official) halfway between mid-court and the free throw line. Each official watches different parts of the court for infractions. For instance, the official near the basket makes sure that no offensive player stands inside the free throw lane for more than three seconds.

High school and college games have two or three officials. Grade school and amateur league games generally have two. Again, the rules may be slightly different, and the athletic ability may vary, but the game is still basketball.

Football games use between four and seven officials. Like other referees, football officials each have specific areas to observe. The referee, who is ultimately in charge, is positioned behind the offensive team. Football referees are responsible for watching the offensive backfield for illegal movement before the ball is put into play, and they also communicate all penalties to the coaches and official scorer.

Another official observes the line of scrimmage for offsides penalties and marks the progress of the ball. The football umpire stands on the defensive team's side, five yards off the line of scrimmage, and watches for illegal blocks in the line. Other officials stand in the defensive backfield and observe defenders and receivers for illegal contact or interference.

Hockey games have three officials who skate up and down the ice. The hockey referee, who is in charge, stands between the other hockey umpires and assesses penalties. The umpires call offsides and icing violations. Off the ice, the penalty time keeper keeps track of penalty time served, and two goal judges determine whether shots on goal have eluded the goalie and entered the net.