This past weekend I was traveling home and heard a radio spot on becoming a high school sports official, sponsored by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). The recruitment and retaining of sports officials for amateur-level games, particularly interscholastic games, is getting to the critical stage.
Many states have so few officials, game schedules have to be crafted in such a way that those officials are able to work the games as they are available. This means coordinating schedule nights, the number of games played vs. the number of officials available on any given night. For some state associations that do scheduling of not only games but officials, this has become more and more difficult.
Last year, this writer, who has worked baseball for 47 years and worked football for 44 before becoming the local assigning commissioner, attended the NFHS Football Interpreters’ meeting in Indianapolis. It was a national meeting that brought officials from all over the country. The focus was the new football rules for 2018, but the entire first day was discussed training and maintaining officials. It is a national problem, and one that is threatening high school and amateur sports.
At one time the bulk of officials came from school systems. Coaches, athletic directors and teachers looked to supplement their income doing something they enjoyed, so they became officials. Over the last two or three decades, the need to supplement a teacher’s salaries is less than it was. That reservoir of potential officials is not providing the same numbers.
The emphasis has been on former athletes in various professions. The recruitment of officials is not the real problem. The retention of those officials is, however. Whether we want to admit it or not, today’s society does not handle authority figures very well. Sports officials are authority figures. Where once there was deference to officials by coaches and fans, there is less now. That is particularly true of fans.
Fans are rowdier, more vocal, more vulgar and more violent than they used to be. And that vitriol is not confined to the professional ranks. It has seeped down through the collegiate ranks, high school and even youth sports. Two weeks ago a video went viral showing a T-ball game that broke into a riot – among the parents – after a 13-year-old umpire made a call someone didn’t like. Last month in a nearby town during a 12-year-old baseball game, police had to be called to restore order. Again, it was due to a call made by an official.
Many men and women become officials, looking to have some fun and stay in shape. Any high school official will tell you when it’s all tallied up the money they get barely pays for the travel, time and expense of uniforms and equipment. In other words, officials aren’t in it for the money.
These officials get their training and are put into low-level youth games to cut their officiating teeth. They are also given JV and freshman games in whatever sport they choose to officiate. The axiom is, if they stay for three years, they are hooked. But many don’t. A vast number leave within three years.
A big reason is the lack of civility among fans. Parents can be brutal. And the criticism isn’t just vocal, it’s personal. That is the line for many. Criticize the call all you want, but don’t get personal. Unfortunately, much of the shouts we hear now are personal – and sometimes are threatening. In a youth football championship two years ago, officials had to be escorted out because a group of fans followed them to the parking lot following the game.
Admittedly, a good number of younger officials leave because of job changes and life changes, such as marriage or children, but the bulk of those who leave list fan behavior as one of the major reasons for making the decision. “I could do something else, and not have the headaches,” is what many say.
As we said, the problem is a national one. The average age of officials is getting older, not younger. Officials are being asked to stay on well past their best years. Newer officials are not there to pick up the slack, and many are put into games they may not be ready to handle.
High school and youth sports are the purest form of sport because they are played for the love of the game. Officials are trained to work their chosen sports according to the level played. That means some more technical violations are ignored so the game can progress. Sometimes fans don’t get that. One does not officiate a varsity game the same way he officiates a bunch of 10-year-old – nor should he.
Most fans are there to watch their kids, have some fun and enjoy the day. Others, however, seem to believe that every call, every play, and every decision is the difference between life and death. It IS only a game, after all.
Officiating in amateur sports is reaching a critical stage. Fans can help by keeping the criticism low-key, and staying away from personal and threatening comments.
If you have the desire to become an official, check with the CIAC (203) 250-1111.