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Officiating shortage threatens high school sports across country

State high school associations trying to reverse downward trend

Photo by Keith Dunlap/GMG

It would be a bit of an exaggeration to call it a "crisis" at the moment. 

But make no mistake: It’s a downward trend that's causing concern and could negatively affect student-athletes in a big way, if it hasn’t already.

Can you guess what we're referring to?

Officiating high school sports has always been a thankless job, when often, the only time a referee gets noticed is when he or she makes a glaring mistake.

But the job has become so thankless, that people are pulling out of officiating altogether, which is bad news for high school sports. State high school athletic associations around the country have experienced a decline over the years in registered officials.

“The shortage of officials in many states has reached a critical level, where contests have been moved or canceled because of the lack of officials,” said Chris Boone, assistant director of publications and communications for the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The Florida High School Athletic Association has seen the number of registered officials go down from 8,352 in 2014-15 to 7,848 this school year, according to FHSAA assistant director of officials Jeremy Hernandez.

In Michigan, the number of registered officials has gone down from 12,722 in 2008-09 to 9,816 for the 2017-18 school year, said Brent Rice, an assistant director and supervisor of officials for the state's High School Athletic Association.

Rice said the MHSAA is still counting the number of officials for this school year, but said the number has surpassed last year's totals. 

In Virginia, the number of registered officials has stayed somewhat steady since 2013-14, but it has still gone down from 8,668 to 8,267 this school year, according to Carrie Little and Mike McCall of the Virginia High School League. 

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association has seen a 15 percent drop in registered officials, while the Illinois High School Association has seen a 14 percent decline, Boone said.

It's becoming more common that there will be only two officials at a basketball game or one umpire at a baseball or softball game. 

So why has this happened? And is there a solution that can reverse the trend? 

Verbal abuse, economy are factors for downturn

According to a survey in 2017 by the National Association of Sports Officials, 75 percent of high school officials who quit said “adult behavior” was the the primary reason they got out.

Translation: Officials are getting sick and tired of the verbal abuse directed at them from parents and coaches.

Rice said most officials can deal with criticism over bad calls, but the issue has gone out of bounds with the attacks becoming increasingly personal.

“What I gather from officials throughout the state is that those criticisms are less about the calls and more directed toward the person,” Rice said. “It’s not, ‘That’s a terrible call.’ It’s, ‘You’re a terrible person. You’re an awful official.’ Even without profane language or vulgar language, they are personal attacks. Those are the things that drive officials out of officiating.”

As strange as it sounds, Rice said, the improved economy in recent years has also contributed to the decline of officials.

“When the economy is good, our numbers tend to go down,” he said. “Officiating at the amateur level tends to be a vocation taken on when people need that little extra cash. When they want to put some money away for college or have vacation money. When the economy swings in a positive direction, the need for that is not as great. The number of officials wanting to put some extra cash in their pocket isn’t at the same level.”

The rate of pay for officials varies depending on the sport, but $50 a game for regular-season contests and $60 a game for state playoff matchups are considered a good average. 

Given the decline in numbers, many officials feel that extra money still isn’t worth the verbal abuse they sometimes have to endure.

What are the solutions?

With the declining numbers of registered officials becoming more alarming each year, state high school associations have tried to ramp up their recruiting efforts by spending more money on advertising.

During televised state championship football and basketball games, the MHSAA has commercials encouraging people to register to become an official.

The onus is primarily on state and local associations to get the word out that officials are needed, but Hernandez said the NFHS has been a big help for the FHSAA and other associations around the country. 

“The NFHS has really started a big push for becoming an official, and have provided states all kinds of flyers/posters, etc.,” Hernandez said. “So, when an interested individual provides their information on the NFHS website, and puts they are in Florida, I automatically receive all their information so I can reach out to them in minutes.”

It's also become a priority to engage in selective advertising and the targeting of groups of people who seem as if they would make good officials.

Rice said two such groups are military police officers and first responders.

“Even though it’s obviously not of the same importance, a lot of the skill sets they learned in those positions transfer over to officiating seamlessly,” Rice said. 

Of course, another solution is trying to tell parents and coaches that verbal abuse of officials is unacceptable and harmful.

Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the NFHS, recently wrote an editorial headlined, “Dear Mom and Dad: Cool it.”

“Make no mistake about it, your passion is admired and your support of the hometown team is needed,” Niehoff wrote in the editorial. “But so is your self-control. Yelling, screaming and berating the officials humiliates your child, annoys those sitting around you, embarrasses your child’s school, and is the primary reason Indiana has an alarming shortage of high school officials.”

State associations everywhere hope these measures and others can help reverse a bad trend, because if there aren’t officials on the field or in the gym, there can’t be athletic contests and the ultimate losers are high school athletes.

“Without contest officials, games cannot be played and student-athletes miss out on part of their high school experience,” Boone said.