ST. GEORGE — A decline in the number of new recruits into the ranks of referees and umpires is threatening to impact the quality of officiating at the prep level when it comes back around for the new season in the fall.
Officiating groups are claiming an environment of abuse from fans and inadequate compensation are dissuading new recruits from signing up to become referees and decimating the retention rate. Becoming an official is a multi-year commitment, Gene Van Orden of the Red Rock Officials Association told St. George News. He said that newer recruits are dissuaded by the commitment to learning coupled with the persistent, under-the-microscope, abusive environment from covering sports.
“Our replacement, our younger officials coming up through this system, it’s just not happening like it did before,” Van Orden said. “We would have anywhere from four to five to 10 new officials a year. That’s not the case now. I think last year we had two or three new people that joined our association.”
The problem hasn’t yet resulted in athletes showing up to games and not having refs there to work it, at least at the varsity prep level. It has caused smaller crews at lower levels on occasion but has not made its way up the chain yet.
Instead, it has forced younger, more inexperienced officials to get a premature call-up to the varsity level. Normally, Van Orden said, trainee officials will work at the sub-varsity level for a full season or two before working higher profile games. With the scarcity of officials increasing, the call comes sooner.
These rawer officials might not have the same composure that a seasoned veteran might when it comes to coach and parent agitation or the confidence in their ability to make the correct calls. It can end in a positive feedback loop: an official makes a tough call and hears it from a coach, parents or both. The official doesn’t have the experience to manage those emotions and control the game, allowing that to fester and grow, leading to more conflict on further calls and more nervousness.
Increasing the issues, the veteran officials age and have a harder time keeping up with the kids. The steady flow of developing younger officials into veterans keeps the quality steady as well.
With the shortage, calls get less accurate and fans get angrier and more emboldened.
Van Orden said the most constant pool of new officials is parents looking to stay involved after their student graduates. The officiating prospects get a front-row seat, or maybe even perpetuate, the abuse they would have to put up with if they signed up.
In the era of video taping, live streaming and social media, the concern of a blown call doesn’t just disappear with the next play.
These issues are nationwide and have resulted in shortages everywhere. Jeff Cluff, who oversees officiating for the Utah High School Activities Association, said Utah has actually staved off the dearth longer than many places.
“In Utah, we’re kind of late to the ballgame,” Cluff said. “I’m starting to see a trend to head in that direction basically in the last 12 to 14 months.”
Cluff said it could be due to COVID-19 but has seen the pattern of officials advancing to the next level or moving on with no one to step up and fill the void. He acknowledged that it takes a “certain individual, a unique person,” to put up with some of the aspects of the job.
He’s worked to improve other aspects of being an official in his time governing officials for the state’s prep efforts, including a pay raise to $70 a game for varsity football. Some officials, like Van Orden, still say they believe it comes up short when accounting for the amount of time spent not just at the event but traveling to the venue, reviewing game tape later, undergoing further training or something else.
“It’s a commitment,” Van Orden said. “We have training sessions during the football season that are pretty much every other week where we meet and go over actual live film of games and situations and have specific topics that we cover with all of our officials.”
It’s that work behind the scenes that Van Orden wishes the fans would recognize. He said the refs are never plotting against your team and they don’t just put on the stripes at the field and take them off when they get home. They work at it, and they care about it.
Are prep referees perfect? No. But neither are the players or the coaches at the high school level, either.
“Our players make mistakes,” Travis Wilkinson, head coach of boys soccer at Dixie High School, said. “We as coaches make mistakes. Why would the refs be exempt? They’re going to make a mistake or two, and you’re just going to have to learn how to play with it and through it. Even when I’ll want to say that a game was decided on a call, the truth is I’ll always tell the players after, ‘Could we have made this goal, that goal, this attempt, that cross that we did not finish?'”
Wilkinson had his patience with referees tested over the 2021 varsity season, watching his team fall in come-from-behind fashion to Crimson Cliffs with a game-winning goal scored on a penalty kick. The Flyers were eliminated from playoff contention against Ridgeline 2-0 on May 12. Both goals were scored on penalty kicks. In that match, St. George News witnessed a linesman request a parent who was shouting expletives be removed before Wilkinson talked to both parties and cooler heads prevailed.
So why do the refs that still linger put up with it all? Simply, they love it.
“I do it because I love the game,” Van Orden said. “I love being around the kids and the interactions you have with kids and the kids you get to know and see down the road when they grow up.”
For some, officiating is the best way to stay involved. For those interested, opportunities are plentiful. Cluff requested that people interested in testing officiating go to www.highschoolofficials.com to sign up.
It may be thankless and it doesn’t fill the bank, but as Cluff said, it’s necessary and rewarding for those “unique persons.”
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