A nationwide shortage of referees for high school and youth sports is forcing the cancellation of games. In Rock Hill, S.C., Northwestern High School soccer coach Dom Wren had to postpone a Wednesday game to Thursday and ultimately cancel it when he couldn’t find two referees to work it. “I’m really surprised we couldn’t get anybody two days in a row,” Wren told The Rock Hill Herald. “I’ve been doing this 16 years and I’ve never experienced that.”
Rock Hill is not alone. Cities all over the country are facing similar shortages, for a variety of reasons — including low pay and little respect. In a 2017 survey. the National Association of Sports Officials asked its members who caused the most problems with sportsmanship. Parents topped the list at 40 percent, followed by coaches at 30 percent.
“I think the biggest cause behind the shortage is that young people today aren’t coming out to be officials,” Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, told The Dover Postin Delaware, where a shortage of referees and umpires is impacting junior varsity, freshman and middle school games – and threatens to reach the varsity level. “New officials start at the lower levels, and at those levels many find that parents and players … want perfection from them right away and many don’t understand this is a human endeavor. I think another reason we’re not getting the younger people coming to join is there are so many other interests and things out there they can do today. Many just don’t have the interest in joining.”
TheTODAY show recently reported on another likely reason people aren’t joining the ranks of officials:
Scenes of parents behaving badly at youth sporting events have repeatedly gone viral online, and the confrontations occasionally involve physical assaults on officials.
In January, a police captain in Wichita, Kansas, was charged with battery after he was shown on video pushing a 17-year-old referee at a youth girls basketball game.
A high school football coach pleaded guilty to assault in 2015 for ordering his players to hit a referee during a game.
The Kansas City Starreports that “Missouri lawmakers are considering a bill that would afford additional protection to those who officiate games,” by increasing the criminal penalties for people convicted of assaulting a youth sports official.
“They need to remember that many of the officials at this level are doing it to give back to kids, remember that the kids don’t play a perfect game, coaches don’t coach a perfect game and certainly our officials aren’t going to officiate a perfect game,’’ Gardner told TODAY.
An estimated 80 percent of officials quit within the first three years, according to the NFHS.
Although cost-prohibitive at the lower levels of sports, virtual reality could play a role in helping game officials make the right call and appeal to a younger generation, according to VRFitnessInsider.com. STRIVR, an immersive virtual reality learning and training company, “allows us to capture granular data about the subject,” the site reports. “We can see how the umpire thinks, what the sideline calls are like, and teach officials how to better make close calls. Because so many games are broadcast in VR, the footage is basically already there. A few additional cameras could capture better real-life scenarios.”
All three major leagues are now openly experimenting with VR for officiating, according to VirtualFitnessInsider.com.
VR is unlikely to trickle down to the high school and youth levels anytime soon (if ever). But last fall, the trade publication Athletic Management suggested five ways to make officials feel more appreciated— which ultimately could help them stick around longer:
1. Rethink hospitality for officials. Does a representative from the school greet officials when they arrive? Are the locker rooms for officials unlocked and ready for them before and after games? Do officials receive payment in a timely manner?
2. Designate a contact for officials and make sure this person is available to assist with their needs throughout the course of a game or tournament. This could be a member of the faculty or staff, a lower-level coach, or even a parent.
3. Enforce spectator behavior policies by removing fans that abuse officials. While referees and umpires are controlling what is happening on the field or court, … school administrators must be responsible for policing fans.
4. Thank them frequently. Encourage coaches to walk up to the officials at the end of a game, extend a hand and say thanks. Team captains can do the same.
5. Thank them formally. At the end of the season, present officiating crews with gift cards for gas or food at local businesses to show appreciation for what they do.
“We lose officials because there isn’t enough support when they are starting out,” Dana Pappas, commissioner of officials for the New Mexico Activities Association, told the magazine. “But if you can keep an official for three years, you’re probably going to keep them for a while.”