If anyone understands the nation’s sports officiating crisis on a personal level, it’s Pete McCabe. The 35-year field veteran was nearly killed in 2009 when, following a semi-pro football playoff game, a player swung his helmet by the mask into McCabe’s head, breaking bones in his face and rearranging his nose and teeth. “Take this. This is what I’m all about,” shouted his assailant, Leon Woods, who served eight years and three months of a 10-year prison sentence for his actions. For McCabe, swelling delayed surgery for a full week, he ate nothing but applesauce and slept in a chair for a month and a half, and he carries titanium screws and plates — and numbness — in his face to this day. No one would blame him for hanging up the whistle, and McCabe vowed he would never return. Today, he not only officiates high school football, boys’ lacrosse and girls’ basketball, he assigns officials for the Rochester (N.Y.) Chapter of Certified Football Officials. AB senior editor Paul Steinbach, who lasted one season as a baseball umpire, asked McCabe, 66, why he came back, when so many others are abandoning the vocation.
Did you see your assault coming?
No, it came right out of the blue. Just before it happened, somebody yelled my name and I turned, and that’s where he caught me. He broke every bone in my face anyways, but if I hadn’t turned, he would’ve hit me on the side of my head, the temple, and probably would’ve killed me.
Can you describe what went through your mind upon impact of that helmet?
It was like slow motion. I mean, I kind of remember looking at the guy right next to me, and then I went down. Next thing I knew, they were holding my hand and you hear the siren, the ambulance coming. They have pictures of me in the paper with me holding an ice thing over my nose. I don’t remember any of that. And then when I was in the ambulance, they were asking me the date and stuff, and I had no idea. And then they said they had to get me there quicker. But I was conscious once I got the hospital.
Did you black out at all?
I think I blacked out right after he hit me. I don’t know for how long.
Obviously, you were concussed in addition to everything else.
Oh, I had a brain bleed. When the doctor did the surgery on my face, he came up to see me in the hospital. He was very honest with what was going on. He says, “You’re lucky to be alive.” And it was kind of surreal when he said that. That was scary.
Have you and Woods spoken since?
No, not at all. I have an order of protection against him until 2025.
What was your reaction to the length of his sentence?
Well, as I look at it, it was a really good sentence. It was what the DA wanted, and obviously we were going to go to court, but we just had too much proof of what happened and the way he acted after it happened. I think he deserved every day.
Was there anything about the game that led to such an outburst by that player?
They lost to a team they shouldn’t have lost to. It was the playoffs. They were the second seed. They were playing the eight seed. They got beat. He was the one who carried the ball on the last carry, tried to get in the end zone and didn’t make it. It’s like any player, you can blame the officials until you’re blue in the face, but for the most part, it wasn’t a bad game. But it was semipro football, and those guys tend to get a little out of hand every once in a while.
You said you would never return to the field.
That’s correct. And I remember saying that. I told my wife when I was in the hospital, “I’m done.” I gave her my penalty flags and the stuff I had, and I wasn’t going to do it again. That all changed a couple weeks later.
What brought you back?
I was kind of incapacitated for a little bit, but they were showing me high school games on TV, and I just said to myself, “I’m not going to let what this guy did to me take what I want to do.” And at that point I said, “I’m going to try to come back.” I did try to do some basketball games, probably about six months later, but it was just too much on my face. I just couldn’t do it. It was like my whole insides were shaking and moving. It had to heal, so I was down for about a year. I was still active in the sports I was doing. I would do sport clocks, and I would evaluate younger officials and things like that while I was out.
Having experienced what you did, how do you psych up for a game? Is it any more difficult now mentally than it was before your injuries?
I have a tremendous amount of respect from the coaches in the area who know what happened. I’m more of a celebrity for the wrong reasons. But the only time I get nervous is when we walk onto the field through a crowd and then afterwards walk out with a crowd. And you have people after games who don’t like your calls, and they follow us to our cars. I’ve had several situations where they’ve told us to stay in the locker room because of calls that were made in the game. And, you know, that’s the one thing that bothers me the most.
What can be done about that?
One thing I don’t see a whole lot of around here is the security for the officials at games. Now, for varsity football games and varsity basketball games, they have plenty of police there. But when you’re doing youth sports, which is the worst, hardly any security. So, if somebody wanted to take a pop shot at you, they could. I don’t work in the city of Rochester anymore. It’s not because of the people who live here. It’s because I don’t want go back to that place that hurt me, because that’s where you’re going to get hurt. We’ve got a lot of problems in the Rochester area right now with security at sporting events. It’s bad. It’s not good at all. And it’s not the varsity. It’s the lower-level stuff, especially, that’s the real problem.
Is that where you lose most aspiring officials?
Absolutely. And you know what? They start doing youth football, and we have to train them. They’re on a youth football field where you don’t have educators coaching. You have parents coaching, and you have parents on the sideline. We changed rules this year. We charge them $200 every time a coach or a parent gets ejected. And guess what, we had four of them this year. They have to pay the fines before we do their games. I had a game this year where I made a call — and at the bottom level of youth football, the coaches can be on the field — and a coach came running at me, screaming at me, and I threw a flag at him and I was going to throw him out if he did anything more. These kids are third- and fourth-graders, and these parents are yelling at these kids and yelling at us. It’s unbelievable what you see. And that’s the reason why these guys don’t come back. They’re being screamed at in a youth football game with little kids running around, and it’s just not right. And it’s not just our area. It’s everywhere in the country.
You’ve been around a long time. Can you say that the experience is perceptively or provably worse today than it was, say, in the 1980s?
Yeah. It’s a lot worse now. The last five years, there’s no respect for officials. It starts with the Yankee manager who gets tossed for arguing balls and strikes and acts like a jerk on a field. These guys watch this stuff on TV and the kids, the parents watch it, and they think they can do it to us. They go in on a Friday night and they scream at you when they see a bad call, and half of them don’t even know the rules and then the other half can’t run up and down the field. There’s no respect for officials in any sport right now. I couldn’t care less who’s playing or what the score is.
Can you explain the human element in officiating?
When I ref a game, am I going to do a perfect game? No. I’m going to make mistakes. Why would the official make this call? Well, put yourself in our position, where you have to make a split-second decision and you’re not in the right position. We all have jobs during the day, and I’ve got my job during the day going through my head. I’m not working all week for this football game. We’re not perfect. We don’t even have instant replay to fix our mistakes like they do in college and the NFL.
Football rules are changing in the interest of player safety. Does that make your job harder?
Oh, yeah. Helmet to helmet is the toughest call I have, because you have to know who initiated. When you’re on a football field, and two guys come together full blast, it’s a ting sound, and you can hear it. There’s no doubt about it, but who caused it? And that’s hard to tell when you’re out there watching it. College has the opportunity to go to replay and see if it’s targeting or not. We don’t get that opportunity. And it’s just a tough one to guess. And then there’s nothing worse than when a player gets hurt because of a call we don’t make. The coaches get mad. Well, you know what? My flag is not going to stop what happened.
How much longer do you think you’re going to do this?
I don’t know yet. My wife would love to see me quit tomorrow. But it keeps me in shape, and I really do enjoy doing it — especially football and boys’ lacrosse. Lacrosse is a sport I never played. I never knew the first thing about it until my kid played. That’s the one sport I got the Official of the Year for Section V lacrosse, and that’s probably the best award I’ve ever gotten, because that’s the sport I didn’t know. The coaches had a lot of patience with me and taught me everything. I’ve done very, very well. I mean, my rating is still higher in football than lacrosse. And, believe it or not, the hardest sport for me to do is girls’ basketball.
You have male coaches coaching females, and they expect perfection. You watch on TV, and I don’t care what college basketball game you’re watching, or NBA, these guys just are all over the officials. And then you have the crowd in a high school gym right on top of you, and then the coaches will incite the fans. That’s the bad part.
Where would you put the peak in terms of officiating numbers, and how long has the vocation been in decline?
I started refereeing Section V in 1999. We had 135 active varsity football officials in 1999. In 2022 we have 81. Around 2006, 2007, we really started losing our numbers, and the reason why we were losing a lot of our numbers is because we were aging out. We couldn’t recruit young people. They just don’t want to do it. In football, the average person coming in is 45 years old. I mean, it takes 10 years to really pass at officiating football and by the time that comes, you’re 55. That’s a big problem nationally, too, because the age of people doing sports officiating is getting older and older and older.
And how many games are those 81 officials supposed to cover?
Probably 700, 800 games in like a 10-week period. If I’ve got 25 games, five guys a game, and I can only cover 16 on Friday, you have to play either Thursday or Saturday. On Saturdays, I’ve been working two or three football games. It’s a lot. I’m using brand new people on varsity football, which I should not be doing.
We see women officials in the NFL and college now. Have you seen women infiltrate your own ranks?
We have one right now. Came in this year. I’ll tell you a story. She’s from the Southern Tier, where it’s hard for me to get officials, and in her second game, the coach for one of the youth teams got totally out of control, and they had to throw him out. And that just set a bad example for this girl. I’m trying to get her to come right along, and after her second game she was ready to quit.
Did you talk her out of it?
Yes, I did.
Do you think the distractions of modern life keep young people from officiating?
The number-one reason why guys don’t want to officiate is they don’t want to get screamed at. That’s number one. Number two is their jobs. To do a modified football game on a Tuesday, the game starts between four and five o’clock. They just can’t get out of work in time.
What do you think can be done to sports themselves to help replenish the officiating pool?
I’ve told the executive director for Section V, I said, “We need to get rid of warnings.” I mean, in basketball, we’re giving them a warning, football we give them a sideline warning. That’s before we give unsportsmanlike conduct. I think we just need to start giving them unsportsmanlikes and throwing coaches out. That’s the only way we’re going to teach them. But our guys are so afraid of a bad rating that they sometimes don’t do that, and they don’t have the experience to deal with an educator on the sideline. Coaches expect perfection, and we’re not perfect. If they would stop being such idiots on the sidelines, yelling and screaming at the young officials, you’d keep these guys around. That’s probably the biggest thing. There’s just too much of that, and until that changes, it’s going to continue downhill and we are going to continue to struggle with officials. It’s going to start in the lower end, where kids aren’t going to have referees and umpires, and then it’s going to go right up the food chain to high school and eventually college. People just don’t want to do it.