by | Feb 20, 2023

Referee shortage taking a toll on high school sports

The high school gymnasium fills up as the student-athletes warm up on a cold Friday night. The seniors are honored before the game, and the hometown cheers seep into a small room hidden from the public a few feet from the hardwood. Inside, a trio of officials — ranging in age from their 20s to 50s — are stretching, reviewing game mechanics and, of course, giving each other a hard time. They don’t have a dog in this fight, but they’re crucial to the outcome.

Thousands of Missourians don an officials’ uniform each year to call balls and strikes, fouls and double dribbles and decide whether a volleyball spike landed in bounds. A decline in official participation is creating problems for schedulers and athletic departments.

People become officials for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest is to stay affiliated with athletics, according to Kenny Seifert, a coach-turned-referee who now is the Missouri State High School Activities Association assistant executive director and in charge of the officials program.

That was the case for Loyd Rice, who started patrolling the basketball courts of southeast Missouri 30 years ago. “My high school coach knew how much I enjoyed basketball and thought I had the right temperament to ref,” says Loyd, an employee of SEMO Electric Cooperative. “I saw it as an opportunity to stay connected to the game I loved. I caught the bug right away.”

Fewer and fewer have caught that bug. This past year, MSHSAA reported 7,138 officials across all activities, down 1,200 from a decade ago. “In those 10 years, our population hasn’t shrunk,” Kenny says. “We’re building more schools. We’ve got more kids playing at more levels across the state. The gap keeps getting greater and greater.”

Kenny says some officials age out. Others start at a young age and as they get married, have families and advance in their professions, officiating becomes less and less of an option. “We’re not concerned about those young people whose priorities have changed a bit and can’t devote the same amount of time,” Kenny says. “They might come back later if they enjoyed it. What we’re concerned about is those we lose because of behavior in the stands.”

Kenny says if an official gets through three years, they’re likely to stay on for decades. However, getting to that three-year mark has been increasingly challenging.

“The demands and expectations on officials can be a lot,” Loyd says. “We have day jobs before the games. Then if you make a close call one way or the other, you just get freaking barbecued by parents and fans up and down the court. It can be tough, especially on young officials.”

Braxton Nicks of Jefferson City began officiating football and basketball in his 20s. He says the problem isn’t just at the varsity football level. “Younger levels are where new officials start out to learn the basics and we’ve seen disorderly conduct at these levels,” he says. “It’s not at all games, but I’ve witnessed the berating of new officials who are just trying to learn a new craft. At these youth games, mistakes are going to be made by the officials, players and coaches. If we understand that, it will lead to a more healthy atmosphere for everyone.”

The shortage has real-world consequences. “In the fall, there just aren’t enough officials to cover football games on Friday night,” Kenny says. “We can manage through that with games on Thursday night or Saturday afternoon. But that’s not what the communities want; it’s not the same emotion as Friday night lights.”

Braxton says in mid-Missouri, they staff many varsity football games with one less referee than normal. “We know next season is going to put a strain on the number of Friday varsity games we’ll be able to officiate,” he says.

The situation is so dire on the diamond that more and more baseball and softball contests are played with a lone official. “Now you’ve got an umpire behind the plate who has to make a safe or out call on a steal at second base. That’s not good,” Kenny says. “Then if it’s a close call, the situation in the stands can start to build if people are frustrated. It’s tough.”

When this year wraps up, Kenny thinks his numbers will be slightly up, but with plenty of room for growth. Loyd and Kenny say in addition to staying close to sports, officiating is a good way to supplement your lifestyle. “I’m not going to retire because I ref,” Loyd says. “But a lot of us take our officiating money and throw it in the jar and use it to take our families on vacations or spend it as mad money.”

The path to becoming an official is easy. Kenny directs those interested to the MSHSAA website for a short presentation that details things like when and where to register, the fees and where to get your uniform. Once applicants pass a background check and a 50-question, open-book test they are a certified official. “Beyond that new officials are required to attend three MSHSAA mechanics clinics their first few years,” Kenny says. “This is where veteran officials work with them on the ins and outs of it like how to make a call, where you should be positioned and how to report certain things to the press box.”

Officials must attend a rules meeting and pass a follow-up test annually. They’re encouraged to attend camps and join a local officials’ association to be assigned games and, more importantly, meet and learn from their peers.

Loyd says that camaraderie is what has kept him on the court. “It’s rarely a specific game that I remember,” he says. “My best memories are of who I called that tournament championship with in front of a full gymnasium or talking with buddies on road trips to games in the snow.”

Kenny says they’ll need more officials — men or women, newly graduated or retired — to provide the best athletic experience for students moving forward.

“What’s going to happen — what already is happening — is a coach sends an assignor 14 home games and the assignor will say they can fill nine of them,” he says. “You’ll either have to move games or eliminate levels of play. Who’s ultimately going to get hurt is obviously the kids that are trying to compete and that’s why we really need to be monitoring the behavior inside our athletic venues.”

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