Whistleblower relishes his role in sports | Local

ROCK ISLAND — Don Umland’s “real job” facilitates intramural sports for the Augustana College student body.

But the 51-year-old’s self-described avocation on the side helps ensure athletic events happen, both locally and nationally.

Mr. Umland is celebrating his 30th year in officiating by continuing a hectic balance of his campus career and family life with nights and weekends as a baseball umpire, basketball official or football referee, mostly at the high school level.
“You do it, first and foremost, because you love the sport and this is one of the ways to stay involved after your playing days are over,” he said. “It’s a great way to give back and pay forward the great experiences you had with sports growing up.

“Don’t get me wrong; the extra money is nice,” Mr. Umland said. “There’s not a lot of part-time jobs out there that might pay $20 per hour or more. But it’s also a way to be part of a team and stay competitive.

“I know I’m still challenging myself,” he said. “I want to be the best official I can be. I want my (officiating) crew to work the biggest games and at the highest levels.”

Mr. Umland is in his fourth season as a coordinator of umpires nationally for NCAA Division III college baseball. That work — along with his role as Augustana’s Director of Campus Recreation — dovetails nicely into his work to help Umland cultivate the next generation of officials.

“I have a chance to get kids involved at the intramural and youth levels, and then help them climb up to high school and college,” he said. “So that’s become my calling as much as anything.”

The most recent success story is former Augustana basketball player Carly Adams who started refereeing intramural games as a senior last year. The former Sherrard multi-sport star followed the steps Umland recommends to anyone interested: reach out to those already in the business, find a mentor, and then get in front of decision-makers as often as possible by working games and attending camps or clinics. Mr. Umland used the same game plan after playing small-college sports at his alma mater, Nebraska’s Peru State.

“She (Ms. Adams) was at the camp at (Rock Island’s) Sharp Shootout this summer, and they were so impressed with her, she’s working small college basketball now in Chicago,” Mr. Umland said. “Not everybody moves that fast, much less gets to that level, but there are plenty of opportunities to work.”

In fact, Mr. Umland said an explosion of youth sports nationally is causing a growing shortage of officials at every level. Just last month, the Illinois High School Association joined a national program launched by the National Federation of High Schools to help recruit and retain contest officials.

“We are dwindling numbers and it’s become a crisis,” said Mr. Umland, who moved to the area for the Augie job in 1995.

“In youth baseball, you see some guys working every weekend — 8, 10, 12 games — and that’s because there’s just not enough people involved,” he said. “So existing officials are trying to become more hands on.
“We’ve found if we can get kids through those first two years when there can be growing pains, we have a great chance of keeping them involved.”

Mr. Umland knows he’s lucky. Unlike his Augustana job, not every work situation offers the flexibility necessary to moonlight regularly as a referee or umpire.

Part of the barrier to putting on the stripes or umpire gear is the criticism that comes from players, coaches and fans.

“Nobody likes being yelled at,” Mr. Umland said. “Good or bad, we’re probably a more sensitive society than we used to be.

“I’ve had some negative experiences over my 30 years, but those are few and far between,” he said. “You also have to have a thick skin and let some of that stuff go. But that’s not easy to teach to somebody that’s young and just trying to learn this avocation.

“I’m happy to see sportsmanship get driven home more and more, though,” he said. “Hopefully that brings some sense of respect to allow officials to just officiate, because it’s not easy. And with youth sports not having any governing body, per se, like high school sports, it does give a lot of free rein to parents to say what they want and not have any ramifications.”

The benefits of learning the craft far outweigh any catcalls from the stands, he said.

“There’s a lot of things to learn from it,” said Mr. Umland, adding his favorite sport to work is the one that’s in-season. “You have to deal with adversity. You have to be able to speak publicly and you have to manage people. And those are all things that translate to a multitude of situations and work places.

“I still enjoy going on the field or court as much as ever, but I enjoy less the travel or time away from family,” he said. “What I really like are the people you get to know — the athletes, the coaches, the administrators — or maybe that fan that sits in the same place for every game. It’s nice to see people who put in their time as well, and appreciate what you do to also make it happen.”

As arbiters of their sport, Mr. Umland said officials root for only one thing with fandom no longer part of their makeup.

“We just want a good game,” said Mr. Umland, who admits to rarely finding time to watch televised sports. “When the pitchers are throwing strikes or the ball is going into the hoop, that’s when you can just go with the flow.

“The toughest games come when it’s not clean and you have to sift through things and manage the game and people,” he said. “That’s what challenges any official worth their salt.”

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