Nearly half of the 321 sports officials surveyed, all of whom were registered with the Michigan High School Athletic Association, reported ringing in the ears, or tinnitus, after officiating. Such ringing often goes away, but with additional noise exposure, it may become permanent. Ringing is also a sign of hearing loss, which typically goes undetected until it causes problems.
“Sports officiating cannot be ruled out as a promoter of early hearing impairment,” the study says.
The study also looked at self-reported hearing trouble among referees. Older people tend to underestimate their hearing loss, said Flamme, an associate professor in the audiology program at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
But reports from younger people are less inaccurate. That is because people compare themselves to peers. At 30, their peers generally have good hearing, but at 70 they do not, Flamme said.
Of course, sporting events feature plenty of nonwhistle noise — roaring crowds, blaring music, amplified announcements. Such noise adds to a person’s entire noise-exposure profile, Flamme said.
“Ears never get a break,” he said. Noise damage only accumulates. But for a referee, the shrill whistle at ear level could “pass ears past the tipping point,” causing or worsening problems.