Blowing the Whistle on the Referee Shortage

public focus, cooling of fans’ anger may help boost ranks of sports officials

Luc Anthony

The 2018-19 prep athletic season is behind us. Summer vacation is underway. Returning student athletes are either pondering which sports to play or training to improve their craft. Coaches are putting together schemes and plans and traveling to learn how to get better in their careers. With any luck, some people in western Wisconsin are giving thought to being game officials.

In the last edition of Athletic Aesthetic, we addressed one of the bigger issues affecting prep sports in our state, and likely around the country: the shrinking number of available game officials. The younger generation is not replacing retiring personnel in adequate numbers, and officials are choosing to leave the profession due to reasons such as abusive fan behavior. Are these the only problems for the field of officiating, and what could be the solution?

“My recommendation would be for fans and others to be informed of rules and the particulars of officiating before criticizing officials. Certainly an environment of hostility and disrespect doesn’t lend itself to increasing interest in taking up officiating.” – Ryan Nelson, high school sports referee

Two longtime local officials – Nicholas White and Ryan Nelson – have raised public awareness of the situation, and provided us their their thoughts and concerns. There are multiple issues to consider; while answers may not be easy, they are attainable.

Besides the boorishness of a small-but-vocal percentage of fans and parents during games of assorted sports, White sees the raising of a young family as interference for 30- to 40-something officials remaining in the profession. “(I) used to work 50-60 games per year, and now with a budding career and a 7-year-old daughter, if I work 30 games a season, that is a lot, and there aren’t many quality/prepared officials to take my place.”

Additionally, making a living can get in the way. Says White: “When individuals give up their time to work games, the compensation needs to match the time and efforts that are put into it.” In Nelson’s view, the outside hobbies many of us love conflict with the schedule of an official. “People often comment about not wanting to officiate fall sports because they have other outdoor interests that officiating would interfere with,” he says. “Officiating requires a significant time commitment, and for many people that is a deterrent.”

With many sports affected, and lower-level (i.e., junior varsity, middle school) sports not garnering the same level of interest as the varsity level, the lack of available officials has led to some game cancellations; hockey and soccer are particularly prone. What can be done to prevent this from happening in the 2019-20 school year and beyond?

Part of the solution rests with fans cooling off their passions. White says athletic directors and teachers can assist, and Nelson notes school districts’ effort to make game officials feel welcome at their venues. However, the ultimate check is the individual who could make a nasty comment. Says Nelson: “My recommendation would be for fans and others to be informed of rules and the particulars of officiating before criticizing officials. Certainly an environment of hostility and disrespect doesn’t lend itself to increasing interest in taking up officiating.”

Self-education can go a long way to help the relationship between the audience and the refs. “I talk with people all the time that know I am an official, and they will ask about a play they saw on ESPN and they just didn’t know or understand the rule,” White says.

Since the campaign to publicize the official shortage began several months ago, progress has been made in some areas. White says that local mentoring programs, YMCA clinics, and open houses are helping to recruit new officials, while the National Association of Sports Officials is doing its part via the website SayYesToOfficiating.com. However, if someone you know wants to regularly officiate, what should they do?

According to Nelson, they should “connect with someone they know that is currently involved in officiating. Ask questions of that individual and get his/her perspective on why they are involved in it.” As White points out, benefits include “the competition of getting calls right, hustling to be in position, and working to advance. It’s a rewarding job in terms of giving back to the game and the athletes.”

Despite the publicity, Nelson is not sure that significant improvement has occurred in the situation, and more time will be needed for full resolution. “It becomes the shared responsibility of all stakeholders that have an interest in high school athletics,” he says. Ultimately, all of us need to make the right call.

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