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West Valley City Journal

Help wanted: officials for youth sports

Jan 04, 2022 09:07AM ● By Greg James

Hockey officials like DeOrr Wight stand right in the line of fire, coaches and players have direct access to them throughout the game. (Greg James/City Journals)

The number of high school referees and sports officials is declining rapidly across the country. Until recently, Utah had not experienced much of a decline, but this season it has finally hit home. Why is this happening and what can be done to make sure athletes don’t miss games because of it?

“If high school is in session I am doing a sport,” Harley Gold said. “I have officiated since 1967. I started because I was invited to a little league umpires clinic then and I became an umpire. I enjoy all of the sports and picking a favorite is like picking my favorite child.”

Gold is not alone, many of the officials started young and have continued for years.

Former USA Hockey Supervisor of Officials Jim Mckenna started officiating youth and adult recreation hockey games in 1994. He continues working collegiate and junior league games as well as games in the ECHL.

“I was looking for a way to earn some extra money back then,” Mckenna said. “I dealt with the assignment of officials and contracts with leagues and organizations and helped with training. It was a lot of work, but it was fun.”

Both of these longtime arbiters enjoy what they do.

“I like being around the game and with the kids,” Gold said.

According to an Ohio University study many states are reporting a decrease in officials. Oregon alone saw a 12% drop in registered football referees this fall. 

The shortage has finally hit Utah. Two weeks before the boys basketball season began the Utah High School Activities Association had 450 people registered for the job, nearly 250 less than what they need to complete the season.

In northern California they have seen a decrease of nearly 30%.

Utah has also increased the number of schools therefore increasing the number of games. Making this a two-headed problem for officials.

The lack of officials has forced postponement and cancellation of many sub-varsity games in the state. Some schools are moving games to make it easier to find people to help.

“Every year in the last five or six years we have seen a decline in the number of officials,” McKenna said. “The abuse from parents and players contributes. The younger officials wonder why they would want to go and get yelled at for two hours.”

Sportsmanship, specifically the lack thereof, has become a key factor in the decline of officials. Sportsmanship refers to virtues such as fairness, self-control and courage. In today’s sporting culture those virtues can take a back seat to winning at all costs.

“We have really lost the sense of what is appropriate. It seems OK to scream at some official and tell them how crappy they are. Society is a lot less accepting and willing to come to an understanding,” McKenna said.

In a National Association of Sporting Officials survey, adult recreation and youth competitive sports had the worst sportsmanship and 47% of officials surveyed feared for their safety because of a fan, player, coach or administrator. 

According to UHSAA assistant director Jeff Cluff, poor sportsmanship is “probably the No. 1 reason an official does not return. We lose about 75% of first-year officials. It is hard if you don't have the personality to handle it. There is no place for bad sportsmanship.”

In early November, at a 13-14-year-old division hockey tournament in Colorado, Ron Groothedde, a 25-year veteran referee, was sprayed in the face with a large can of Lysol by an angry parent. The suspect was arrested for harassment. 

Incidents of poor sportsmanship are numerous.

“I think it takes communication. I see a lot of officials that get yelled at and they yell right back and all that does is fuel the fire. Talking to a coach and explaining what you saw in a conversation and come to an agreement,” McKenna said. “Some of the younger officials are intimidated by the coaches.”

The extra money of a part-time job like officiating was a big draw to begin with, but many potential officials have found other jobs that also pay well. 

In March of 2020, when the pandemic started many games and competitions were canceled. For six to eight months officials sat at home. Many have not returned, citing COVID concerns and also a lack of interest.

“We have tried a few different things,” United States Specialty Sports Association’s Utah Director Jerry Ong said. “We work hard on having good compensation, umpire treatment and fan control. I know as an industry we have suffered with the loss of referees.”

The UHSAA pay scale for officials varies by sport and level. A varsity football referee can take home $74 whereas a volleyball official makes $59. Some schools offer dinner and food stipends to help with travel expenses.

The current pay rates have increased nearly 10% across the board. Some officials can get paid mileage to travel to an event.

“Basketball and softball have been affected the most,” Cluff said. “We have games in rural areas that need to have officials. We are paying more to get guys to travel to those places. We are looking for ways to recruit new help.”

The athletes and coaches of today are the officials of tomorrow. Cluff said getting them involved when they are young could help increase numbers.

“Our coaches make the best officials,” Cluff said. “A basketball coach can be a great baseball umpire or football referee. They have great relationships with kids and know how to work positively with them. It also gives kids a better understanding of the game.”

The UHSAA encourages its athletes to participate in little leagues and youth sports programs. Its older referees also attempt to persuade friends to join the organization. 

“You can never find a more fulfilling part-time job,” Gold said. “I get to set my own hours, work when I want to work. There is also plenty of help available. Training every year and other mentors to keep you straight.”

According to a recent NASO survey, 48% of all current officials started because of an invitation from a friend. 

There are also numerous other reasons why many people get involved. They include extra money, the love of sports, a way to stay active, and giving back to a game they love. 

“I get to work the ECHL games and there are times that I think ‘why do I still do this.’ I just got berated for the entire game, but there are times when the action is intense and the game is back and forth. It is awesome to be involved in a game that is back and forth and the guys are playing well,” McKenna said. “I have also worked with other officials that have gone on and had great careers in the NHL.”

The hard work of officials does not go unnoticed.

“I definitely think officials have the hardest job to do. No matter what they do it will upset one side or the other,” West Jordan boys basketball head coach Christian Wouden said. “We have some great officials and they work extremely hard.”

In 2021, Tammy Spencer and Lance Nielsen were awarded officials of the year by UHSAA.

Many leagues offer training for new officials. The UHSAA has set up official associations and they provide constant training and are always looking for new hires to try it out.