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No Referees, No Games

This article originally appeared in the October 1990 issue of Athletic Business.

Will the games go on? Sports officials are more in-demand than ever, and high school administrators are looking for an infusion of new blood in the officiating ranks.

When Bob Lombardi arrived on the scene at the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association in 1988, high school teams in some sports and some areas of the state were playing musical chairs with their game schedules. Roughly half the schools would play a Tuesday-Friday schedule, while the other half would play Wednesday-Saturday. The reason? There simply weren’t enough game officials to go around if everyone played on the same night.

Screen Shot 2017 01 19 At 2 08 35 PmAt that time, there were 10,800 licensed officials in the state. Today, after an intensive two-year recruiting project, there are 14,100 officials and that’s still not enough.

“At one time I thought that if we could get to 14,000 we’d be in good shape,” says Lombardi, assistant executive director of the PIAA, “but I’m finding that we need more.”

Pennsylvania’s experience is echoed throughout the country as other states also struggle with a chronic shortage of qualified officials.

Don Sparks, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, has been involved in high school athletics for more than 30 years, including 19 years with the National Federation, and he can’t remember a time when officials weren’t in short supply.

“It’s an ongoing thing,” says Sparks. “I’ve never heard anyone say we have too many good officials.”

Nonetheless, Sparks and others say the magnitude of the shortage seems greater today and has the potential to become worse if aggressive steps aren’t taken to reverse a trend that probably began with the passage of Title IX and the subsequent growth in girls’ sports programs. Today, the number of high school sports programs continues to grown and the pool of available officials isn’t keeping pace.

There are structural problems that contribute to the shortage. In many urban areas, for example, games have been switched from evening hours to late afternoon, because of the threat of violence after dark. That means many officials are unable to work those games, because of conflicts with their full-time jobs. In rural areas, long travel times to games can be a deterrent for some officials.

Many believe the problem goes far deeper, however. Some say people today aren’t as public-spirited as in the past and are less willing to make a time commitment to youth sports. Others say there are too many other recreational options available.

The central factor, however, seems to be this: The money involved is far too little to compensate for the lack of personal satisfaction and recognition many officials receive at the high school level.

“Most officials are in it for the recognition, not the money,” says Sparks.

Trouble is, officials tend to get abuse, not recognition, for their work. The abuse comes not only from local fans, coaches and players, but also indirectly from media treatment of professional and college officials.

“Official bashing (by the media) is not necessarily directed at high school officials,” says Sparks, “but it carries over to their image.”

“There are a lot more competing demands on people’s time today, the pay is very low and the abuse seems to be getting worse,” says Barry Mano, publisher of Referee magazine and president of the National Association of Sports Officials. “You find people a lot less willing to put up with all that.”

Mano says the disturbing trend is not so much the lack of people entering the field as it is the number of officials leaving after a relatively short time.

“Our surveys show that a high percentage start and then leave within three years,” says Mano. “We have a computerized mailing list of 240,000 (high school officials) and that list changes by about 30 percent every year. That includes people who quit, people who retire and people who die, but that’s a pretty big turnover. We find that there’s a high level of dissatisfaction in the first three years.”

The dissatisfaction stems from several sources, says Mano, including the officials’ personal ambition and impatience with the perceived lack of career progress.

“It’s really an avocation for 99 percent of the officials, so it’s not a normal career, but there is a career path and probably 50 percent or more of high school referees have a goal, in their hearts, of getting into college [officiating]. That’s where the money is and that’s where the notoriety is.”

That seems to be more of a problem for officials with roughly six years of experience, says Mano.

“You get through the first six years and at that point you’re pretty agitated. All the other guys seem to be getting the big games,” says Mano.

“Then something happens in the next four years and by year 10, it seems that officials are more settled. They’ve accepted their position in life, they have a better grasp of their strengths and weaknesses and I think they become better referees. They have a more relaxed attitude and they go out and enjoy it and do the best they can.”

Among younger officials, the dissatisfaction stems more from their surprise at peoples’ reaction to them. In the past, officials have tended to come out of the coaching ranks and knew what to expect from coaches and fans.

“That has changed, according to our surveys,” says Mano. “During the last decade, more officials have gotten involved through intramural programs and through high school and college officiating (education) programs. That’s a very different thing because they come out of those environments and into the real world of high school officiating and they find out people don’t necessarily like what they do. It becomes a real downer.”

To combat the turnover among officials and attract new prospects to the field, several state high school athletic associations, as well as the National Federation, have taken the offensive. The goal, says Sparks, is “more organized efforts in recruiting, training, and retaining officials.”

In Pennsylvania, the PIAA has launched a multipronged campaign that includes news releases and public service ads in the state media, and posters in all the high schools, colleges and universities in the state.

Lombardi believes one of the most promising initiatives is the Elizabethtown Program, named for the high school that currently offers an elective physical education course in sports officiating to high school seniors.

“Just prior to graduation, we waive the application fee and they take the (officiating) test,” says Lombardi. “If they pass, we issue them an ID card as an official in good standing with the PIAA. We feel it’s a great part-time job for them.”

With only one school involved, the program has had limited impact so far, but the PIAA is working to get the officiating course accepted into the physical education curriculum statewide, providing the state with a steady influx of new young officials.

Bringing young people into the field is especially critical to prevent an increasing age gap that will make it difficult to replace officials who retire, says Mildred Ball, assistant commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association.

“We did a survey that showed the average age of our football officials was in the mid-40s, which says that down the road we’re going to be in big trouble,” says Ball. “we have to go for the young people, because it takes four to five years to become a good official. It’s just not something you can walk out on the field and do well right away.”

Like Pennsylvania, Indiana launched a media campaign to attract new officials, with extensive advertising done during the state boys and girls basketball championships, two popular events that are televised throughout the state.

Officiating courses are also taught through the physical education departments of 33 colleges in the state and at 15 high schools. Like the  PIAA, the IHSAA will license high school students who pass the course as soon as they graduate.

The initial recruiting push attracted more than 3,000 new applicants, says Ball, “but a lot of people apply, receive the rule books and are overwhelmed. We never hear from them again.”

To get more of the interested applicants to take the test and become officials, the IHSAA enlisted the support of the 22 officials organizations in the state.

“We asked them to write to the people who had applied and invite them in the pretest meetings to show them how to use the books,” says Ball. “That helped.”

The IHSAA also initiated a probationary program for football officials that allowed applicants who failed the test to work as officials on a limited basis.

“What we have is a person who is interested,” says Ball, “and we want to give (him or her) every opportunity” to become licensed.

Probationary officials are required to attend clinics, rules interpretation meetings and officials organization meetings and work with veteran officiating crews at freshman and junior varsity contests.

“At the end of the season, they take the test again and if they pass and have fulfilled all the requirements, they can become licensed,” says Ball.

In 1988, the first year of the program, IHSAA picked up 77 new football officials and gained 60 more last year. Because of that success, the probation program is being expanded to other sports this year.

The keys to Indiana’s ongoing recruiting program are the 22 officials organizations in the state. Ball meets regularly with the secretaries of the organizations and together they developed a procedures manual, including lesson plans for instructing new officials.

Mano says there are approximately 3,200 officials organizations on NASO’s national mailing list, and he expects those groups to play a stronger role in recruiting new officials.

The IHSAA also tries to respond to spot shortages, says Ball.

“When we get calls from athletic directors who say they have a shortage in their area in certain sports, we blitz the newspapers in that area, asking people to become officials,” says Ball. “In the Terre Haute area not long ago, there was a big need for softball officials, because the schools over there were just starting (varsity) programs. We sent a veteran official from Indianapolis over there to teach a series of classes and 33 new officials passed the test and were licensed. We did the same sort of thing in the southern part of the state with volleyball.”

Maintaining an adequate pool of officials is an ongoing task, says Ball. Of the approximately 8,000 licensed officials in the state, “we lose anywhere from 700 to 1,000 every year, but we also replace them. We’re just trying to keep our heads above water.”

Recruiting programs are certainly part of the solution, says Mano, but by themselves will do nothing to slow the constant turnover that has made high school officiating a virtual revolving door and kept the pool of officials from growing more.

“[Recruiting programs] are laudable efforts,” says Mano, “ but the reality is that if things aren’t changed more significantly relative to pay, working conditions and the overall image of officials, we aren’t going anywhere.”

The National Federation has been pushing state athletic associations to promote sportsmanship for the last several years in hopes of reversing the ugliness that increasingly characterizes crowd behavior at high school games. In the worst cases, game officials have been physically assaulted by fans, players and coaches.

Better sportsmanship might encourage some officials to remain active, “but we don’t expect the ultimate in sportsmanship,” says Mano, who’s been an official himself. “What we do expect is more support from sports organizations and supervisors.”

Pennsylvania high school athletic leaders are recognizing that, says Lombardi.

“If you’re an official and you arrive at a game, you have a parking spot and a good clean locker room, the athletic director greets you and escorts you to the court so you don’t have (fans) coming after you, you’re going to feel better about it,” says Lombardi.

“We know those are all little things, but we’ve asked our schools to be more sensitive to the fact that these people are important, that they’re doing us a service and they’re required to put a lot of time and effort in.”

School districts and game officials are responsible for negotiating game fees themselves, but the PIAA has tried to set an example by increasing fees for interdistrict and state championship games.

Like schools in many other states, many in Pennsylvania have moved game times to earlier in the day, but the PIAA is encouraging school districts to be more sensitive to the way such scheduling can cause conflicts between full-time jobs and officiating.

“There are a lot of factors (influencing officials)—abuse, time away from home, release time from work, pay and working conditions, and we’re trying to address them all,” says Lombardi.

Those most familiar with the concerns of sports officials say the issues need to be addressed continually, but that the core of interest that has always put game officials on the field and on the court has not dwindled irreversibly.

“In speaking to officials groups around the country, I find that the people who are active as sports officials still think it’s an important thing for them to do in terms of helping the kids,: says Mel Narol, a sports attorney and former referee who serves on NASO’s board of directors. The shortage of officials “may not be a serious problem right now, but it is a concern and maybe the beginning of a trend we’d like to see reversed.”

“I’m optimistic,” says Mano, “because sports aren’t going to go away and if there are sports, by definition there will be referees. There will be people to get the job done.”

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