For decades there have been spiritual outlets for players, coaches and even team administrators, but there hasn’t been much available to give sports officials spiritual guidance.
Organizations like Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action and Campus Crusade for Christ, as well as team chaplains, have helped competitors on all levels — from the professional ranks down to high schools — deal with questions and problems in their lives.
In times of darkness, loneliness or temptation there has been a place to turn.
So what about sports officials? How do they find help balancing their lives of stressful and lonely work, family and spirituality?
The people who seemingly face the most conflict in the sports arena have always had to fend for themselves.
However, a revelation of sorts has been happening. In the past 15 years, organizations have been set up specifically to give baseball umpires, basketball referees and other sports officials spiritual guidance and help them deal with the pressures of their profession.
These groups are providing a portal for officials who seek advice when they need the word of God and to provide them with answers to their questions and reaffirm their faith.
The first of these groups, Calling for Christ, was an idea generated by current Major League Baseball umpires Ted Barrett and Rob Drake.
In the Beginning …
Following the 2003 baseball season, Barrett and Drake talked about what they could do to give their fellow umpires, both in the major and minor leagues, a source to find spiritual guidance.
“In December of that year is when we had our first retreat,” Barrett said. “We got a pastor to help us, we had another guy who was going to teach, we got a guitar player and we sent out a bunch of emails.
“We thought we might be the only ones to show up but we had a total of 12 guys, including Rob and myself. Rob was in the minors at the time in Triple A, I was in the big leagues and the rest of the guys were in the low minors. It’s interesting because I thought it was a failure because the big league guys didn’t come.”
From there the 12 “disciples” spread the word.
“This past year was our 16th retreat and we had 60 guys, 15 major league umpires and 45 minor league guys,” Barrett said.
While the annual retreat was the first step, Calling for Christ soon branched out with an in-season, weekly call-in where major league and minor league umpires could share in prayer, listen to a devotional or discuss a Bible verse.
There’s more to being a successful sports official than mechanics.
“You’ve got your physical training when you have got to be on top of things. You’ve got your mental training where you have to talk about positioning and rules. I believe there’s that spiritual component that you need to have to be a good official,” Barrett said.
“We’re trying to help the young guys avoid the mistakes some of us older guys have made,” he added. “We’ll help them with their umpiring as well as when they have questions. I know when I was in Class A ball I wish I could have picked up a phone and called the big league guys to ask them how to handle a situation.”
John Brammer, one of the original 12, expanded the concept in 2013. A minor league umpire for 11 seasons until his release in 2010, Brammer along with his pastor, Dr. Steve Havener, established Calling for Christ University for college umpires and officials, with Barrett’s blessing.
Back umpiring NCAA Division I baseball, Brammer said he quickly realized college baseball was facing the same problems as the pro ranks.
“I was sitting at lunch with one of my partners (Doug Williams) and he started praying before he started eating. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Why don’t we pray together?’” Brammer said.
“I told him this had been on my heart to have this ministry, doing this conference call for guys. He said, ‘I think you should do it. I’ll tell everybody I know.’ That’s kind of how we got started.”
CFCU, which is a grassroots, word-of-mouth organization, began with just six people. It now has more than 200 who have made the call.
“What we try to do is provide reinforcement that there are other guys out there who are facing these same problems and this is how we deal with them,” Brammer said.
Unlike Calling for Christ, which is limited to professional umpires, CFCU is trying to broaden its horizons.
“We welcome anybody, even if you’re not Christian or if you just want to call in and listen,” Brammer said. “When we first started we were baseball only. Now we cater to all officials, men and women.”
“Calling for Christ University is so critically important,” said George Drouches, the NCAA national coordinator of umpires, who also is currently a college football official. “It gives umpires an opportunity on a weekend when they’re away from home and under a lot of stress to perform at a high level; somewhere they can call in and rekindle their faith.”
“We have the fellowship. We always talk about the brotherhood, which means we support each other,” Drouches said. “John Brammer’s group takes it to an intimate level with Christ. There’s an opportunity now for an umpire who’s working either in San Diego or Staten Island or Miami or Minneapolis to call in and spend a little time with the word of God.”
Sports Officials Surrendered
Umpires aren’t the only ones seeking spiritual help. Basketball referees as well as other officials united last summer at the first REF (Referees Embracing Faith) Conference.
A new faith-based group called Sports Officials Surrendered organized the event, which was led by Pat Fraher, an eight-year veteran NBA referee, and Darron George, a top-flight NCAA Division I basketball official for the past 19 years.
George and Fraher have held a training camp for referees for 10 years.
“When camp is over, these guys send us plays, they’ll call us during the season, they’ll input on different coverages and decisions made and we continue to work with them even during the season,” George said. “It dawned on us that why would we not do the same thing when it comes to our faith?”
The REF conference included contributions from former NBA referees Steve Javie and Ed Rush, as well as former NCAA Division I coach Homer Drew.
“We all just got together to say this is who we are. This is what we believe and this is why we believe it,” George said. “So now we’ll get texts, calls and emails from guys on the road that are having difficulties or struggling.”
SOS has an invitation-only group message board — GROUPME.
“Anybody can come to it,” George said. “It’s just not faith in good times. It’s also about sharing struggles. So many guys profess their faith in the time of struggle and that’s their story. For us we decided to take the lead on that.”
Pressures of the Game
Officiating, especially in the professional and NCAA D-I ranks, is among the most stressful professions in sports. And, with the advent of social media and the expanded television coverage, it has only added to that stress.
“I work the Big 12 and SEC. Every game I work is on TV. There’s a ton of pressure,” Brammer remarked. “When I walk off the field, my phone usually has between 15-20 text messages and 2-3 emails about the game I just worked. There’s constant scrutiny.
“I had an ejection one year where someone got on Facebook and cussed me out because they didn’t approve of my ejection of their player. There’s a ton of scrutiny and it bothers everyone at different levels. I turn to the Bible.”
The microscope TV brings to a missed call can be overwhelming to any official.
“Some nights things go off without a hitch. Then there’s that one situation when it’s the play we’ve got to get and we don’t. Then we see ourselves on ESPN for the next 24 or 48 hours,” George said. “If you don’t have some foundation of faith to fall back on, those moments can cripple you.
“I’ve had that play. Even in that moment, if you have faith, you know you have a purpose. The media may kill you with it. Players may kill you with it. Coaches may kill you with it. But God can use it for good.”
Barrett said being perfect as an official is the ultimate goal — but you can’t be.
“The pressure is unbelievable, especially at the major league level with all the media coverage and the camera angles,” he said. “You hear players say that we’re not accountable. That’s not true. Every pitch, every play we call is dissected, broken down, evaluated and graded. So we’re completely accountable on everything we do. More so than anybody I know.
“We don’t get a whole lot of support or a lot of accolades so you’ve got to do that with each other. In reality I work for an audience of one. At the end of the day I know there are people who aren’t pleased with me, but when I walk off the field I know God is pleased with what I did. That takes a lot of pressure off.”
Role of ‘Villain’
Many fans view officials as villainous, especially if their beloved team loses. It’s leaned on as an excuse.
“It really boils down to we’re really just a necessary evil,” George said. “We have to be part of them or the games wouldn’t be played.”
“We definitely are the villain, there’s no doubt. So you just have to accept that fact,” Javie said. “My wife would ask me how can you stand it with people just yelling at you from the stands? One thing I know is they don’t know my job and they’re just rooting for their team regardless. It goes with the territory.”
Still, since officials are human, it can be troubling to the heart, mind and soul.
“In the beginning it didn’t bother me, but over the years of constantly being berated takes a toll. You never make anybody happy,” Brammer said. “The thing that bothers me the most is when someone thinks that I cheated and they question my integrity. You learn to deal with it and you realize they’re looking at the game through the lens of their team. We are looking through a lens of impartiality.”
That’s where support from other officials and the word of God is helpful.
“I’ve had guys thinking about retiring from officiating,” Brammer remarked. “I’d ask them why and generally the most common response is, ‘I’m tired of everyone yelling at me.’
“Officials never win or lose. You just do your job and you go home,” he added. “I think the biggest thing I miss from being a player or coach is winning.”
Being a professional or high-profile college sports official often translates into a lonely, nomadic lifestyle.
“When I was umpiring in the minors my aunt would refer to me as a gypsy,” Brammer said. “I would leave in early March for spring training and come home sometime the middle of October. No vacations, no coming home. During the season you did 140 games in 150 days so there’s really no days off.
“I was married in 2006. The first 36 months of marriage I was gone 27 of them. It was very hard on my wife.”
Barrett has seen it all during his long career.
“I’ve seen guys go through divorces, family issues and issues with their children,” he said.
Being away from home can strain family relations, but it can also lead to other temptations.
“(Life on the road) can be difficult. We’ve got three hours out of the day that are really fun. We’re with our partners, we get to the arena and we have the game. The spotlight is on, the camera is rolling, the hype of the crowd,” George said. “Yes, there’s a ton of pressure but the other 20 hours of the day can be terribly difficult.
“We are in hotels. We are in different cities every week. The temptations of everyday life are so much more readily accessible. The temptations can play tricks on you if you’re not grounded in faith and don’t have some support system around you.”
The lifestyle invites temptation that can lead to addictions.
“There are coping mechanisms that we use to handle life on the road to kind of mask the pain of the loneliness, the boredom, the rejection and the negative stuff we’re getting on the field,” Barrett said.
“It’s alcohol, it’s chasing women, it’s drug use. The addiction of videos and things like that especially now that it’s so handy on the telephones. It’s amazing with these young guys that have apps where women will come to their hotel room.”
Loneliness plays a big part.
“I just think there’s way too much time alone for these guys. That leads to all the negative things,” Barrett said. “We want to be a resource for guys, and ultimately we want to give sports officials spiritual guidance they can use.”
Support at Any Level
Over the last three years, CFCU has reached out to the three major high school associations in Texas.
“Instead of a phone call, we had a luncheon where Ted (Barrett) spoke,” Brammer said. “We had a really huge turnout. We’ve encouraged guys on the call-in to reach out to high school officials.
“We try to show leadership. If you’re a college official that means you are at the top of the amateur ranks. You need to show that leadership and mentor it down to the high school level because it’s only going to strengthen us as officials and as Christians.”
A Place to Turn
Whether it’s missed calls or missteps, more and more sports officials are realizing there is a place to turn for spiritual guidance when the pressure of the job or life becomes overwhelming.
No one knows that better than Javie, who in January 1999 was the only one of 15 referees to be acquitted of tax evasion charges as a result of not reporting income received by downgrading airline tickets provided by the NBA.
It was a traumatic time.
“When I look back at that time I can really only look at good things now and at that point my relationship with Jesus Christ improved,” Javie said.
“The most horrible time of your life turns out to be the most wonderful time of your life because there you meet the Lord and there you just realize he can help me through this and he will make something better out of it.” Javie said.
In the scheme of athletic events, it’s the officials who are often forgotten. It’s no longer the case.
“Officials are the last thing people think about. It’s why we have each other,” Brammer said.
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