Role of the Umpire

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The word "umpire," derived from the French word "noumpere," is defined as a person who resolves disputes. In sports, umpires or referees are employed to enforce rules of the game. The role of umpires and referees, at both the professional and amateur levels, is to keep the game moving within its rules and regulations.

Umpires and referees call fouls, penalties and possess authority to eject participants or spectators. Umpires require rigorous training, excellent knowledge of the rules, a calm demeanour--and a very thick skin.


The number of umpires required and their specific roles differ from sport to sport. Baseball employs anywhere from two to four umpires, depending on the level, with one responsible for home plate and others for the base paths. Football officials are assigned different areas of the field. Two referees and two linesman enforce hockey rules. Two to three officials work basketball games, while a soccer referee works with linesmen and assistant referees. An umpire sitting in a very high chair arbitrates tennis matches. Three stewards monitor the action in thoroughbred and standardbred horse racing.

Main Role

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The role of an umpire sounds simple--enforce the rules and allow the game to play out. However, the responsibility and roles of umpires are unique from sport to sport. The main role in all sports is to keep play moving at an adequate pace, call fouls, enforce and report penalties, track scoring properly, keep order and stop the game during inclement weather or potentially dangerous playing conditions. Umpires and officials enforce disciplinary action up to and including ejecting players and coaches from the contest.

Specific Roles

Baseball umpires rule on balls and strikes, fair or foul balls, and judge runners out or safe at each base when necessary. The umpires working the bases sometimes endure long periods of inactivity before needing to make a snap judgment call. A crew of four to-seven football officials (a referee, umpire, head linesman, line judge, field judge, side judge and back judge in NFL games), focus on different areas on the field to ensure proper coverage. All have equal power to call penalties. Basketball officials also concentrate on certain areas of the floor and can assess fouls. The same holds true in soccer. In hockey, one or two officials, labelled referees, can call penalties. Two additional officials, called linesman, handle details including offside and icing infractions and face-offs. A tennis umpire keeps score in addition to supervising and overseeing line judges and can overrule them when warranted. Horse racing stewards rule on fouls and jockey objections from high above the racetrack and have the ability to disqualify winning horses and riders. Monetary fines usually result from such disqualifications.


Umpires and officials wear uniforms that differentiate them from the players. These vary from blue and black for baseball umpires, to striped shirts and black trousers for basketball and hockey officials. Tennis officials wear a coloured tennis shirt and khaki trousers. Some soccer officials wear brightly coloured shirts, black shorts and caps. Umpires and referees wear the seal of their accreditation organisation.


Umpires and officials don't just show up, put on a uniform and enforce rules of the game. All officials, in any sport, require significant training and testing at their own expense before they're allowed to arbitrate a sporting event. To become an official at the highest level of a sport can require many years of working at lower levels--for example, baseball umpires work their way through years of minor-league assignments. Annual rule changes are common. Umpires and other officials must put hours of study into staying current on game rules--as well as spending a lot of time staying in good physical and mental condition.