By Steven L. Tietz
How did you fall in love with officiating?
At the NASO Summit in Louisville, Ky., this past July, there were smiles and nods of agreement everywhere when Joan Powell related the story of how she fell for officiating.
“I actually took a (college) course in officiating,” she said. “My first gig was CYO. It was outdoors, on asphalt, in Tucson, Ariz., and I was on top of a turned over garbage can for $5 a match, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”
It was just that cool for her.
Powell, who is coordinator of women’s volleyball officiating for the Pac-12 Conference and highly involved in the Professional Association of Volleyball Officials, related that story when she moderated the “Help Wanted: Why Officiating Is Cool” session at the Summit.
The problem, however, is tales like hers are becoming fewer and the authors of them are getting older, because the drumbeat heard from California to Maine, Washington to Florida, is not good.
There are simply not enough high school-level officials out there anymore. Numbers are down almost everywhere with an ever-shrinking pool of 300,000-350,000 officials working interscholastic sports nationwide.
A 2016 study by Ohio University painted a challenging picture, as there are officiating declines everywhere and in almost every sport. A casual Google survey reveals dozens of stories on the topic.
“We are one official away at any given venue of having to cancel a game,” Dave Pixton of the Northwest New Mexico Officials Association told KOB-TV. In Kansas, the average age of softball officials is around 60, according to another article.
The common wisdom goes that if you can get an official to that third year, then you’ve probably hooked them. But getting to that third year is proving to be a major problem, as according to a recent NFHS study, only two of 10 officials return for that third season, an attrition rate of 80 percent.
“We’re trying to figure out the best way to address this, but the issue is we have no clue what to do, or where to go, or how to do it,” said Tom Robinson, Colorado High School Activities Association associate commissioner and head of officials, to the Denver Post earlier this summer after the state reported that it had 1,400 fewer officials this year than last.
And the problem is, officials are needed more than ever because the NFHS also reported that the number of participants in prep sports reached an all-time high (7.87 million) for the 27th year in a row in 2016.
The factors leading to the officiating crisis are numerous. They include the following:
- Older officials retiring and younger officials not replacing them;
- Low pay and increasingly busy schedules for officials who have day jobs and families to tend to;
- And an increasingly hostile work environment as parents become more involved, and spectators seem to have fewer filters when it comes to expressing their displeasure with officials, including physical violence.
Underlining that point, the Ohio University study reported that more than 85 percent of officials would consider leaving if the environment worsens.
The issues sometimes begin internally and include the hard-boiled assigner who demands an official attend his or her camp at an exorbitant price, the territorial issues of having to commit to work for one district but not the other and the potential of being blackballed for having done that, and the simple cost of becoming an equipped official.
Tackling the daunting task of how to get and keep officials at the Summit were Charlie Obermayer, who is senior manager of officials for US Lacrosse; Vito Testa, U.S. Soccer director of referee programs; Mark Uyl, Michigan High School Athletic Association assistant director; Sandra Walter, Indiana High School Athletic Association assistant commissioner; and veteran volleyball official Nancy Funk from Louisville.
The issue has no single answer and work on it has to start internally, said panel members.
Uyl gave voice to an all-too-common problem.
“I’ll vent here, and I’ll sound like the raving lunatic for a second,” he said. “We’re all very conscious of the real upfront cost (for officials), dues and uniforms, and all of that stuff. That, we can all live with and work with.
“The maddening thing then is the undercurrent stuff. ‘Well, if you want to work for me, I really need to see you at camp, and my camp is $275.’ Or, ‘You know what, I’ll give you some games, and it’s a $40 fee a game, but just know that I take $5 a game as an assigning fee. Oh, hey, and by the way, I get the money up front from the schools, and then I pay you at the end of the season.’ Just all of those things that, in my humble opinion, are shady as all get-out, and that’s the stuff that drives people away.”
And it’s not just a Michigan problem.
“I had a young man who walked into my office last year and told me, ‘I am scared to death of my assigner,’” Walter said. “I thought, ‘We’ve got a big problem.’ Getting those people (unethical assigners) out of our system is certainly what we have to do. It does nothing to retain those new recruits.”
It’s a hard attitude to break, added Powell.
“I had an assigner once that said, ‘There’s only one reason to turn back a match, and that’s death, and it had better be yours,’” she said. “What is that?”
Fortunately, the cures are as diverse as the causes, but they require some imagination and determination to make them work.
Each state is doing something a little different to bring in more people and NASO has helped by supporting officials through education resources, public relations and legislation.
Individual states have also instituted video training libraries and are encouraging coaches to identify potential future officials among their players. There are rules banning specific disrespectful chants. Rules of sportsmanship are read before the start of almost any game. Other states are offering free six-week seminars in various sports where successful candidates can walk out with a license.
The NFHS also started its own recruitment initiative in April with various inducements included. The website where candidates can start the process is at HighSchoolOfficials.com.
The collection of ideas creates a more tolerant work environment for officials, but the panelists at the Summit agreed more needs to be done.
“If you want to recruit teenagers and 20-somethings, it’s not putting an ad in the local newspaper,” said Uyl. “It’s not getting in those traditional methods. If you’ve got recruiting groups in your local associations, your recruiting group can’t be, with no disrespect, four retired officials.
“You’ve got to have a 20-something (out there) to know how we are going to start to reach out through social media. If we want to recruit younger, we’ve got to try and think younger.”
“It’s trying to get them engaged,” added Walter, “and it’s a whole different way to engage them than just having a meeting. That does not do it any longer.
“They live in their phone, so it’s got to be quick, it’s got to be accessible to them. We’ve got kids out there who want to give back to the game. But it’s got to be interactive, it’s got to be a little more exciting; sexy, if you will.”
Obermayer recalled a eureka moment that greatly helped his sport.
“We created a video for people (who) had just become lacrosse officials,” he said. “They were 20-somethings, just got done playing. We brought them into the office and put them on camera and had them talk about their experiences.
“This young lady from Johns Hopkins said something in her interview that kind of got me thinking. She said, ‘Let’s get this trending.’ So, we did this (hashtag) #becomeanofficial.
“What happened was she shared it, and then her post and that hashtag was shared with 20 of her friends, and then those 20 friends shared it with five or six other athletes around the country, and before you know it, we were trending. #Becomeanofficial was trending for lacrosse in prime recruiting season.”
And if social media doesn’t work, personal interaction might.
“I think we have to connect our stories with ourselves,” added Obermayer. “Say, ‘Hey, you just graduated college and you need some extra bucks to pay for the bar tab.’ That’s going to relate probably to a 22-year-old who’s struggling to find a job out of college, or pay the bills.
“Don’t be afraid to take your story and spin it a little bit to meet theirs.”
And once they’re in, give the new recruits help.
“Don’t throw them to the wolves,” Funk said. “Don’t put them out there with somebody who doesn’t even want to help train them. If you’ve got people in your association who really want to train these people and help them (use them).”
“I think it falls back to volunteerism and finding a mentor that you rely on,” Testa said. “Not in a formal setting, not in a ‘I’m here to evaluate you’ setting. Just finding someone to come out and be your friend and help you along is important.”
Bringing in and keeping more minorities and women can help bridge the gap too, panelists agreed, as would some flexibility by associations.
“We struggle in Indiana I think like everyone,” Walter said. “We’re seven to 10 percent (minorities and women) probably, at best. Some sports obviously more so if they’re women. We live in Indiana, in the Midwest, and we’re conservative, so our women are staying home, raising a family.”
To compensate, Walter said that the rating system in Indiana has been adjusted to allow women early in their careers to have a year off to have a child without any loss of status, provided that she is consistent with her applications and assignments.
“We continue recruiting female officials,” Walter said. “It’s certainly something we continue to encourage.”
Funk agreed and suggested other solutions.
“I think we all have to realize that a lot of our females, they’re getting out of college, they’re getting jobs, the same as the men are doing,” she said. “Now if the women want to get married and start having babies, they’re going to be out of the system for a while.
“(We need to) work around these women a little bit to help keep them in the system. … Maybe we have to work around their schedules and help them stay in so that when that child gets a little bit older, they’ll be active with us again.”
Encouraging officials to add other sports is also a potential help.
There are other pools of talent too. For example, the Battlefields to Ballfields program started by Mike Pereira, Fox Sports rules analyst and former NFL director of officiating, is making it increasingly easy for veterans to become officials. Parents of athletes who have now grown up are also being tapped.
“They’ve (parents) lived a little bit and they have some life skills where somebody screaming at them isn’t going to bother them as much as it might that 18- to 19-year-old kid,” Uyl said. “We’ve actually had some good success stories in Michigan by recruiting that athletic parent.”
“I’ll be honest, there’s been events, probably once a week, that I’ll turn to the parent beside me and tell them, ‘In 10 minutes I could have you licensed,’” she said.
“But I don’t think it’s enough just to recruit them,” Walter added. “You’ve got to hold onto them.”
One retention tool is helping out a young official financially at the start of his or her career.
“What we started doing in our association is, if you’re going to buy something new and you have the means to do it, buy an extra hat and put it in the box at your association meeting,” said Obermayer. “Put out a wish list that the association can look for. If your members have the means to spend $10 on another flag (or a hat or a shirt), and you guys (have) an equipment drive, when you have a new official coming in you can outfit them.
“(And) that’s one less thing that they’re going to have to spend money on to start their career. We had over 75 percent of our association in Baltimore last year donate.
“Our entire new candidate class last year was completely outfitted by our group, and they felt welcomed because of that. Hopefully all of them will come back.”
And in the end, nothing beats self-promotion.
“We talk a lot in our office, and I need to do a better job of this, but why do we wait for the media to tell our story?” Walter said. “In Indiana, we license more than 7,000 officials, and we have more than 100,000 Twitter followers. Our associations have their banquets, they award kids scholarships to move on.
“Why aren’t we taking that and publicizing that to the ‘Nth’ degree?”
Some groups are.
“We made a bunch of educational videos that were produced in house and they would reside on our website, and then they made their way to YouTube,” Testa said. “You could see the ticks of how many views there were, how many hits there were, that increased very quickly.”
Whatever it takes to bring more people in.
“It’s all of our jobs,” Funk said. “We try and even recruit from other sports. If they officiate one sport they have some idea of what they’re supposed to do as an official. I send my own officials out and say, ‘Go recruit your friends, go recruit the kids in your area.’
“And then when you get them in, make them feel welcome.”
Because if you do that, you may create a lifelong official.
“Those of us who are still working on the field, the coolest thing about officiating is all of us still have our next game to look forward to,” added Uyl. “I think that’s the greatest pull. It’s a way to truly stay involved.”
Creating memories is important. Testa wistfully recalled when he got started in officiating at age 13, working with his dad.
“Being able to go with him on Saturday and Sunday morning and run his line — be his assistant referee — it was fun,” he said. “It made it fun for me to spend time with him and have a connection.”
The key is creating something, that if more people tried, would find out is very cool.
Steven L. Tietz is a longtime sportswriter from Milwaukee. *
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