March 22, 2017 | By Kevin Lilley
Athletics-minded veterans seeking community involvement, or some extra cash, can receive a significant head start on the path to becoming a sports official thanks to a nonprofit recently started by a former top NFL referee.
Mike Pereira, who now analyzes NFL and college calls for Fox Sports, came up with the concept for Battlefields to Ballfields, he said, during a long drive as he pondered how close he came to becoming a service member himself: His Vietnam-era draft lottery number wasn't chosen.
"But I started to think of those who did serve, and that sacrifice, and I started to wonder if there was something I could do to show my appreciation," he told Military Times. "Not to help, just to show my appreciation. And then thinking about the shortage of officials, I thought, 'Look at these returning servicemen. They have some of the qualities that we need in officiating.'"
A pilot program that sent a handful of veterans in California through training last year underwent some significant modifications and expansions, and now, former service members who receive a Battlefields to Ballfields scholarship will get:
- Free sport-specific equipment and referee/umpire uniforms.
- A free year's membership to the National Association of Sports Officials, which includes added training materials and some insurance coverage.
- Full payment of local association dues and required insurance coverage for up to three years.
- A refereeing "mentor": While the nonprofit is based in California, B2B spokesman Doug Kelly said the group will find mentors for all scholarship recipients regardless of location.
The group's website went online in late February and had 41 applicants by mid-March, Kelly said. While programs are offered in baseball, basketball, football, lacrosse, soccer and volleyball officiating, all scholarships now being granted are for fall sports.
WHY SHOULD VETS REF?
Becoming a moving target for parents rooting for the losing team may not sound like an ideal way to spend an evening or weekend. One draw for veterans could be financial: Pay scales for officials vary by region, sport and ability level (youth/club, travel leagues, high/junior high school), but overseeing a Saturday slate of youth football games can be worth several hundred dollars, and a two-hour weeknight baseball or softball game can earn its umpire $50 or more.
And while the B2B scholarship may give veterans a leg up on their competition, Pereira offered several reasons why former service members can make outstanding officials, scholarship or no. Chief among them: Years of decision-making experience, often with much more than a game on the line.
"Generally, I can teach [officials] what to call and what not to call, but I couldn’t teach them some of the other things, which is the physical presence, the confidence on the field, the decisiveness element," said Pereira, who began his officiating career in Pop Warner football in 1971. "It’s called the ‘it factor,’ and these guys who have spent their time over there, fighting for my freedom, they’ve got the it factor. So that does give them a one-up."
Veterans who've kept in (or near) military shape also have an edge, Pereira said — not just to keep up with games like football or soccer or basketball, but to offer a physical presence that can end many disagreements with fans or coaches before they start.
The games also allow for interaction with neighbors, and in sports that involve a team of officials, service members may find themselves in a familiar squad- or unit-based scenario that brings out military-instilled skills.
"You’re part of a team that has a goal," Pereira said. "And when you walk off that field, you basically know whether you’ve achieved that goal or not. And when you’ve achieved that goal, you really feel good about it."
Pereira put forward two personal goals for the B2B program: Offering 1,000 scholarships to veterans, and helping at least one up the officiating ladder into the major-college ranks or above.
At that point, per-game paychecks can reach four figures, and fan reactions can reach three decibels. That brings up another reason Pereira said veterans will make good refs — one he learned from an early program participant.
"I asked him, 'Are you worried about being yelled at?'" Pereira said. "His answer, 'When I was in the service, I got yelled at so many times for no good reason, I’m perfectly prepared for this.'"