The Covid-19 pandemic forced the in-game officials of some high school sports to the sideline.
For those who worked games, the fewer fans in attendance was likely a welcome site.
Fewer people, fewer gripes.
“People are getting chased off because of the anger toward the officials,” said Tom Berns, who assigns football and basketball officials for the Southern Buckeye Athletic and Academic Conference. “We know people aren’t screaming at the person. They’re screaming at the shirt.”
According to a story published by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, 80 percent of officials nationwide quit after two years on the job, citing unruly parents as the reason why.
And therein lies the ultimate problem. Young people aren’t sticking with it and as the veteran officials retire they are not being replaced.
“Many of our officials have decades of experience and at some point they will not be able to officiate games and when they decide to get out of it, then I do not know where our next group of officials will come from,” said Troy Diels, athletic director at Wilmington High School. “We desperately need people fresh out of high school, college to get involved. If we are unable to get more (young) officials involved, then the end result will be more cancellations of games due to the fact that we do not have game officials. Obviously game officials are a very important part of high school athletics and without them, we will have a lot more problems on our plate.
“I believe this may be a reason that some may not get into officiating, but when I talk with officials about fan abuse, they say it is not a big issue with high school athletics. Youth games seem to be a bigger issue when it comes to fan abuse. Those that attend games need to keep in mind how valuable officials are to the overall experience for our student athletes.”
The numbers are easy to follow.
In 14 OHSAA sanctioned sports during the 2019-20 school year, there were 14,651 certified officials. In 2010-11 there were 16,629 officials for 12 sports.
In 2010-11, there were 2,876 new officials. That number was down to 1,951 in 2019-20.
“Officials getting old and getting out,” said Clinton-Massie athletic director Bennie Carroll. “Not a lot of young ones getting in. Covid forced out even more.”
Baseball umpires went from 4,248 in the spring of 2011 to 3,369 in the spring of 2020. Softball umpires were at a 10-year low of 2,191 in 2020, according to the OHSAA.
“The number of volleyball, soccer, track and field, and lacrosse officials is quite low and is getting to a critical point,” according to the OHSAA. “The decline in officials is starting to cause sub-varsity level games to get cancelled.”
Berns said officiating in general is in dire straits.
“It’s a critical state for officiating,” said Berns. “Football is in need of officials. Basketball is getting there. The average age is 55-56 years old. Years ago when I started it was in the 40s.”
Berns said many officials are going through the process of earning OHSAA certification then turning to independent leagues and tournaments like AAU basketball. He said a recent class had nine prospects sign-up with four completing the course. Three of those four were going to do nothing but AAU games.
Berns said most fans are simply not up to date on the rules of the game. In addition, each sport at the prep level has become so much faster and physical than it was even 20 years ago that more officials are needed on the field of play.
In basketball, two officials were the norm then three became mandatory. Four are needed, Berns said, but there’s simply not enough space on the floor. Some states are now using seven officials for high school football.
Because of time demands, states like Washington and Connecticut, Berns said, are moving varsity games to Saturday because there are not enough officials to go around on Friday night. That forces the junior varsity games, historically a Saturday morning event, to Monday, said Berns.
That also brings about demand on officials for freshman and junior varsity games, some of which start before most of the workforce gets out of a full-time job.
“We have to find a way to make this fit younger people’s schedules,” said Berns.
Once that happens, Berns said new officials need to understand it’s an “education process” and not a quick fix. Berns said when he started, varsity officials for basketball would take new officials with them for the reserve games. They’d work JV games for up to five years before going up to the varsity level.
“We got trained the whole season for like five years,” said Berns. “They don’t do that today. They don’t want to wait the five years. The younger officials aren’t getting the opportunities we did. Now they want to do varsity (games) in two or three years. When they move (up) too fast and don’t take the time to learn, that’s usually when they have problems.”
All parties seem to agree the first step to getting an increase in numbers is simple.
“In increase in pay will also help in the efforts to get more officials,” the OHSAA said in a release. “The OHSAA is always cultivating improved sports behavior, which will go a long way to keeping officials in the profession. Increased recruiting efforts and support will also help replenish the number of officials.”
Joe Davis, who has been a volleyball official for 24 years and basketball official more than 40 years, has been a volleyball instructor for 15 years, training new officials with the hope of meeting increased demands. He said he may have 30 students in his class getting a license and in five to 10 years “you have only 10 that still referee.”
The fix? Davis said that’s the $64,000 question.
“When we (officials) go to meetings, we bring up to other officials what can we do to get other officials involved,” he said. “That’s the unanswerable question.”
Reach Mark Huber at 937-556-5765, via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @wnjsports