The Illinois High School Association board of directors has voted to join a growing number of state associations that implement background checks for sports officials.

As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Sam Knox, assistant executive director for the IHSA, said that for many years, referees were simply asked on their IHSA application: “Have you been convicted of a felony, yes or no?” In recent years, the IHSA has cross-referenced its list of referees with the Illinois State Police criminal database.

Then, in 2017, a former IHSA referee, who had worked basketball and baseball games near the Illinois-Missouri state line, was sentenced to three years in prison for failing to register as a child sex offender. Knox said the IHSA’s decision to require background checks, approved during its April meeting, was not a direct reaction to any one incident or piece of legislation. Instead, he said the organization “just knew it was the right time.”

“We’ve got 12,000 officials statewide, and we know a large majority of them have nothing in their background to prevent them from officiating,” Knox told the Tribune. “But to have that extra step of security is something our schools will be grateful for, knowing the official coming to work those games deserves to be there.”

According to the Tribune, the new IHSA policy will go into effect for the 2019-20 school year. A partnering firm called Peopletrail will conduct the background checks, which will result in a slight increase in fees officials must pay in order to obtain or renew a license. An official used to pay $50 to obtain a license in his or her first sport, and then $15 for each additional sport. Now, the fees will be $70 for the first sport, $20 for the second sport, and $15 for each additional sport.

It marks the first licensing fee increase since 2014, and the first change in the secondary fee since 1998. The licensing fees also cover the officials’ enrollment in ArbiterSports, a digital system used for scheduling and paying referees. Knox said covering the fees for all 12,000 referees was not in the organization’s budget.

Marty O’Leary, who officiates softball, football, basketball and baseball and is a referee assigner, said the fees are unlikely to dissuade many officials — who "aren't in it for the almighty dollar — from signing up for next year. “It’s supplemental income, a part-time job,” said O’Leary, a Yorkville resident who has been officiating for 22 years and has worked at the state finals for softball and girls' basketball. “Most are in it because they really love the sports, love to be part of the kids’ (experience). That’s why I do it. I love to give back. It’s for many of the same reasons people coach.”

Per-game pay for officials varies by sport, level and conference, but is generally between $55 and $85 per assignment — often on the lower end of that scale, according to the Tribune.

Paul Steinbach is Senior Editor of Athletic Business.