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Youth Sports Are Back. Officials Are Not.

5 Nov, 2021

By: Michael Popke
Shortage of Refs Reaches ‘Crisis’ Level in High School Sports

The United States is experiencing a “national crisis” when it comes to the dwindling number of officials available to officiate high school sports. That’s the message in a new video from Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations.

“We need more individuals to consider officiating high school sports, and we need players, coaches, parents and other fans to be respectful and supportive to ensure that those individuals who are currently officiating continue to do so,” she said, adding that current officials appreciate a personal welcome upon arrival at venues, a secure place to keep their belongings while working and an environment in which good sportsmanship is enforced.

The officials crisis is impacting all sports and forcing games to be moved or canceled, according to Niehoff. And it’s happening at other levels of sports, too — from youth to college. This is nothing news, as pleas for more game officials have been made for years. But a  combination of factors is making the current situation even more dire. Those factors include concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic; mistreatment of officials from players, coaches, parents and fans; and an aging population of current officials.

According to the National Association of Sports Officials, the average age of a referee is 53, and the average age of a football referee is 54.

NASO is making a direct appeal for more officials with its “Say Yes to Officiating” campaign. “There’s an urgent need for sports officials in this nation,” announces a website dedicated to the mission. “More people are needed to step up to do the tough job of making sure sports are fairly played, well-managed and safe environments for all participants and spectators.”

As part of the campaign, the Racine, Wis.-based organization created a series of public service announcements and commercials that can be used for television spots, social media posts and in-venue broadcasts. NASO also provides a list of “12 great reasons to start officiating.” They include the ability to stay active, to give back, to experience camaraderie and community, and to earn extra money.

“The shortage is more severe than I can remember in the 46 years of doing this,” NASO president and founder Barry Mano told WXOW.com in La Crosse, Wis. “There’s a percentage of officials, a good 20 percent or more, that stopped officiating during the pandemic — who are deciding not to come back at all.”

Officials who remain active are becoming more vocal and forward in the way they address situations in which they feel unsafe or unwanted. In Oregon, the Mid Valley Pop Warner league and the Mid Western Football Officials Association sent an email to families informing them that the regular season would end earlier than expected.

“An unprecedented number of games were called early this season, threats of violence were made against officials, multiple coaches were suspended for on-field conduct and an overall environment of poor sportsmanship permeated many of our sidelines and stands,” the email read, according to KEZI.com in Springfield, Ore. “All of this culminat[ed] in a vote last week by the Mid Western Football Officials of Oregon to discontinue service to MVPW for the remainder of 2021. … We have identified two teams whose coaches and/or fans have repeatedly presented the most egregious threatening and unsportsmanlike behavior throughout the season.”

Pop Warner reportedly offered a registration discount for players returning next season, but that gesture would exclude participants who age out after this season. “There’s going to be kids moving on from Pop Warner next year,” Justin Dodge, head coach of the Lebanon D2 Warriors Red — one of the two teams singled out in the email — told KEZI.com. “Those parents deserve a refund. They don’t deserve ‘you’re not going to get your money back when you’re not going to be here anyway.’”

Meanwhile, officials organizations around the country are making changes to their recruiting efforts and policies. The Northern Delaware Football Officials Association, which now counts  almost half the number of officials it had a decade ago, is in the process of streamlining its  approach to recruiting new referees.

“We need to recruit younger folks,” Bob Collins, president of the association, told WDEL.com.“We’re working with the schools we work for to announce over the PA the website to sign up, and also reaching out to local colleges to post opportunities on their message boards. … I think if they came out and saw what we do, and how we do it, and the fun that’s involved in it, and the help you give to these kids, they would stick with it.”

To make the ranks of officiating even easier to join, the NDFOA is attempting to shorten its 10-week training course and has lowered the experience requirement for working varsity games from three years to one. 

Minnesota Youth Athletic Services, meanwhile, also has strengthened its recruiting and bolstered its educational and training efforts.

“A lot of the time, officials feel like they’re left to fend for themselves. But … we’re here for the officials in every aspect, as we are officials, too,” Tony Schrepfer, director of officials for Minnesota Youth Athletic Services, told Southwest News Media. “We’re just putting the finishing touches on our new program that we’ll be rolling out for the 2022-23 basketball season. We will have a similar program in place for this upcoming spring for baseball, too.”

“The profession is tougher than we might think,” the NFHS’s Niehoff said in her video message encouraging more people to join the official ranks and imploring everybody else to show more respect for officials. “We must realize that officials do their best out there.”

It's not just a phenom in the USA, either. In Canada, Sport Manitoba has launched its #NoRefNoGame initiative, in an attempt to recruit more officials.

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