High schools see decline in number of refereesMay 07, 2018 01:09PM ● By Greg James
The need for more officials of high school sports is increasing. More games, retirement and poor sportsmanship is making it hard to find enough replacements. (Photo dsandersonpics.com)
If players line up on the field and there is no official to enforce [JM1] the rules, does it count in the standings?
Overall, Utah high school sports have seen a 2 percent decline in the number of officials for its sporting events. Nearly 2,700 men and women officiate high school athletics in the state.
“We are no different than the national trends,” said Jeff Cluff, Utah High School Activities Association assistant director in charge of officials. “Officiating is a difficult trade. It takes a lot of time just to be adequate let alone very good at it, and our newer officials are not sticking around long enough to get to that point.”
Many of the state’s experienced officials are retiring, and there are not the number of younger replacements. Cluff also pointed out that we have more schools and more athletic participants than ever before.
“It used to be that there would be one game a night at the school,” he said. “Nowadays, there could be a baseball, softball, soccer and lacrosse game all at the same time. Not to mention all the club sports that use our officials too.”
Utah’s current unemployment rate of 3.1 percent leads to a strong economy. Therefore, many residents are not compelled to spend extra time at a side job.
The UHSAA has partnered with youth sports programs such as Ute Conference football in the Salt Lake Valley. The youth football program referees are also registered as UHSAA officials. The purpose is to train younger referees on Saturday to become high school officials also.
“There used to be college courses as elective credit,” Cluff said. “It was used to get students to referee intramurals. Those classes are no longer available for college credit. I think [Southern Utah University] still has this course, and Weber State recently started one. Young kids do not have as many places to be introduced to officiating.”
The scrutiny involved in the game has also discouraged many eligible participants.
“I can be at a high school game, and within five minutes of an error on the field or court I can get a text, tweet or an email at the UHSAA showing the error that the official made,” Cluff said. “People are less patient, and they expect perfection until they actually try it and see how hard it really is.”
Professional sports fans have become accustomed to instant replay and slow-motion video—something that is not available at the local high school level.
“I had friends that were intentionally thrown at and have heard of parents and players that were malicious and disrespectful,” former high school softball umpire Gerri Ewing said. “It is hard to put a young 16- or 17-year-old into that environment and expect them to be eager to come back. I umpired because I love softball. The money was not important to me. It was so I could give back to the community.”
Utah has two NFL officials both of whom are former high school officials (Bart Longson, Ryan Dixon). Two years ago, two Utah-based officials worked the NCAA national championship football game. DG Nelson (SLCC baseball coach) recently refereed in the NCAA basketball tournament, and six PAC 12 umpires reside in Utah.
“I think our top 15 percent of officials are as good as any in the country,” Cluff said. “I have seen and associate with officials at a high level. We have a deep pedigree of officials in this state. Some of our experienced officials are very well respected.”
Officials and coaches have seen an increase in unsportsmanlike conduct from both players and fans.
“Parents can be so harsh toward officials. It is a toxic age,” Herriman swim coach Michael Goldhardt said. “Kids and parents want game time; they have no loyalty to the school, and it is always someone else's fault.”
Schools and state associations are finding ways to recruit. Their plans include training and seminars at local leagues and recreation sports, but the need is growing faster than they can find replacements.