Stars in Stripes

From coast to coast, the shortage in officials is reaching crisis proportions. Athletic administrators are sorely needed to help this profession make a comeback.

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management magazine.

Athletic Management, 12.6, Oct/Nov 2000,

It’s five minutes before tipoff. The gym is packed, the teams have warmed up, and the National Anthem is being played. There’s only one thing missing: the officials.
Although this scene may sound like the stuff of an April Fool’s Day prank, some athletic directors are experiencing it for real. And they describe it as more of a nightmare than a joke.
It has not yet hit all areas or all sports, but the shortage of officials is becoming a nationwide problem. Besides canceling games and disrupting schedules, the diminishing supply of men and women in stripes may also be affecting the quality of officiating. Increasingly younger officials are needed to cover varsity contests before going through the traditional underclass game apprenticeship of the past.
While this might seem like a problem the national and local officials associations should be handling, the truth is they can’t do it alone. These associations are moving to actively recruit new officials, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. In reality, officials need help from athletic directors in several areas for any long-term solutions to occur.

How Bad is the Problem?
No matter how long you’ve been involved in athletics, you’ve no doubt heard coaches complain that there are not enough good officials. In recent years, however, the total number of officials—be they good, bad, or mediocre—has decreased almost everywhere. The depth of the officials shortage varies from region to region and sport to sport, but here’s one example: Using data from the Illinois High School Association, Ed Stanley has charted a 24-percent decline in the number of licensed officials in Illinois over the last 13 years, with some sports seeing decreases of 40 percent.
“A number of baseball games over the last few years have been worked by one umpire,” says Stanley, who is Assignment Chair of the Suburban Prairie Conference, outside Chicago. “Or they’ve pulled up the sub-varsity umpire to the varsity game and made the coaches umpire the sub-varsity game.”
Meanwhile, high school football games in the South have been officiated with three-man crews. Soccer games in Maine are being played with only one official. Girls’ lacrosse games in the Midwest are scheduled at night because the only available officials are also coaches of other teams.
“As assignors, most of us have been able to keep a lid on the pot and keep it from boiling over,” Stanley says. “But it has become increasingly difficult, and each of the assignors in this area has indicated to our athletic directors that this problem is not going away. Games have recently started to be canceled or played under adverse conditions due to the shortage of officials. It’s starting to reach crisis proportion.
“I’ve been talking to athletic directors about this problem for five years,” Stanley continues. “Now, we are seeing some more interest and concern expressed by school administrators, but this is too late.”
Why has this shortage developed? The basic answer is simple math. The number of contests requiring officials—including sub-varsity games, youth leagues, and recreational leagues—has gone up while the number of officials has gone down. But simple math doesn’t account for why the number of officials has been decreasing.
Some of the contributing reasons are well out of the control of anybody in the athletic world: the rise in two-income families, which may put more of a premium on time with the family over extra income from officiating; a decrease in the desire to give back to the community; an increased tendency for players, coaches, parents, and spectators to challenge the authority of an official. But some of the most commonly cited reasons for leaving officiating can be influenced by athletic directors: sportsmanship and pay.

A Volatile Mix
Improving sportsmanship is certainly on many administrators’ priority lists, but these efforts sometimes overlook the nuances of how officials can be affected by unsportsmanlike behavior. While the high-profile varsity games usually draw the most attention when it comes to sportsmanship efforts, officials say the sub-varsity games create as many problems, if not more, for officials.
“You have freshman or j.v. coaches who perhaps are not educators by profession, and they want to be national champions in their first year,” says Mary Struckhoff, Assistant Director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), as well as an NCAA Division I women’s basketball official and former athletic director. “And it stands to reason that they’re going to get officials who are not as experienced. The lower-level coaches can be brutal on beginning officials, and that’s not a good situation. Those folks are the ones we want to keep and they’re getting abused and yelled at even more than varsity officials, so they’re leaving at faster rates.”
The problem is further compounded by the officiating mechanics of certain sports. In football, for example, the least experienced officials are usually placed at the wings. This keeps the experienced officials closer to the bulk of the action, but also puts the newer officials closer to the sidelines. Thus a coach may end up yelling at the official least prepared to deal with it.
“They don’t always know how to handle questions from the coaches yet,” says Dick Basye, President of the North Florida Officials Association. “Oftentimes they don’t know the rules because during the first year we tell them not to worry about the technical stuff. We just want them to learn the flow of the game and where to be, and to work on mechanics.”
Thus, the combination of an inexperienced coach and an inexperienced official can be a volatile one, and special efforts may be needed to ensure sub-varsity coaches meet behavioral expectations. One administrator suggests that such an initiative be a joint venture between the athletic director and the head coach of the varsity team.
“I would set up my expectations through the head coach, and I think this is the prevailing view these days—that the head coach is responsible for the whole program,” Struckhoff says. “I would tell my head coaches, ‘You are responsible for your program. And being responsible for your program means being a model for your lower-level coaches and asking them to be accountable, not only to you, but to the school and the entire program.’ Ultimately, when I was the athletic director, I couldn’t be every place, and the head coach was more likely to be at the lower-level contests when I was pulled in another direction.”

Off-the-Field Interaction
Another way athletic directors can help is by encouraging interaction between officials and coaches away from the game site. After receiving complaints from football coaches about officiating, the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) set up a program to show coaches what it takes to become an official, including the amount of training officials receive and the number of meetings they attend. The conference also invited the coaches to the officials’ clinics for a first-hand look.
“All of a sudden the coaches could see the officials running and working on their mechanics,” ECAC Commissioner Phil Buttafuoco says. “In less than two years, the tide has changed to where the coaches feel the officials are doing a great job preparing for the season, and they understand the officials a lot better.
“for instance, w e used an example at our clinic of a side judge in football on a punt,” Buttafuoco continues. “He has one responsibility, and that’s to look at the wing man on the kicking team coming down the field. So if there’s a clip in the middle of the field, in the coach’s eyes it may be right in front of the side judge, but that official is not going to see it because he’s looking at the wing guy.”
Armed with that knowledge, coaches are better able to realize how and why certain calls are made, even if they don’t agree with them. “Now the coaches are starting to understand the positioning of the officials and what the officials are looking for, and I think they have more respect for the individual on the field,” Buttafuoco says. “So we’re going to do something similar with basketball this year to get the officials and coaches together in the same room away from the court—where they can talk as human beings one on one and understand each other a little better.”
These types of meetings don’t have to be limited to coaches, either. “Many schools have preseason meetings with parents and boosters where the local officials association can come in and give a brief update on rules changes,” Struckhoff says. “I’ve had the pleasure of talking about rules changes to players, coaches, and parents and it really is a wonderful thing, because now I’m a person to them, as opposed to just a target of malicious attacks.”
“Anytime an athletic director would like us to attend a coaches meeting, we’ll go,” says Dan Reardon, President of the New Hampshire Football Officials Association. “We’ll go to the schools so the coaches know what to expect out of the rules changes and the officials. And that’s usually set up by the athletic director. If you do this in the beginning of the year, you don’t run into problems in the middle of the year.”
Beyond having calmer coaches and fewer calls to return the day after a game, there is an often overlooked benefit to keeping sportsmanship high on a coach’s list of duties: It can help bring new officials into the mix. “The kids aren’t dumb,” Stanley says. “They see some coach rant and rave and try to yell all the wax out of a guy’s ear. Then we come along later and say, ‘This officiating is a great thing, you ought to do it.’ And they think, ‘Huh? Do you think I’m nuts?’”

Finding New Blood
While recruiting new officials isn’t a part of most athletic directors’ job descriptions, it is one of those things that can make your life easier in the long run. More officials means fewer scheduling headaches. And more officials can mean also better officials.
The most basic step would be identifying people who might make good officials, encouraging them to consider it, and steering them to the local officials association. While many athletic directors may already do this with their student-athletes, there are non-athletes out there who might also fit the bill.
“Sometimes an athletic director can identify kids out of a p.e. class or wherever it may be in a school setting—kids who love sports and know the rules, but maybe aren’t as highly skilled as some of the student-athletes,” Struckhoff says. “Athletic directors can encourage them, whether it be through intramurals or getting them started toward a license.
“Another untapped resource might be parents,” she adds. “I’ve heard many stories about parents who have watched their child compete for four years and then they don’t know what to do with themselves. The child is off at college and they miss going to the game every other day. They can be encouraged to get involved with officiating.”
In some areas, both high schools and colleges have had success with officials training classes offered as part of the physical education curriculum. Officials associations are usually more than happy to help with instruction and some states have even adopted reduced license fees for students coming out of these programs.

Fee Fights
One area of debate between officials and athletic directors affects both recruitment and retainment. It has to do with the paycheck. While it’s true that anybody expecting to get rich through officiating won’t be in it long, that doesn’t mean more money wouldn’t attract new officials and help more people stay in the field.
Officials certainly can supplement their income nicely, but there are a fair amount of costs that must first be recouped, especially for newer officials. Most local officials associations require an annual registration fee and many state associations also have their own licensing fee. The cost for rule books and clinics can add up quickly, as does the cost of equipment and uniforms.
“For football in Florida, you’ll probably spend almost $250 before you’ve brought in any money at all,” Basye says. “And you’re probably not going to work varsity games for two or three years. So you’re doing pretty good if you can recover your costs the first year out.”
“I have over $500 worth of equipment in the bag I throw over my shoulder for each game,” Stanley says. “And all you have to do is fall down once in a mud game and there goes a pair of $38 white knickers, because they almost never come clean.”
Beyond the direct expenses for officiating, there are the costs that often go unrecognized. Many officials have to leave work early to officiate games, especially during the fall and spring seasons.
“I think I usually write off about $4,000 every year to officiate football for time missed and expenses,” says Jon Austin, Vice President of the Georgia Football Officials Association. “So it’s kind of an expensive habit. I’ve asked this question a thousand times when people quit: ‘Would $100 a game compared to $55 make a difference?’ And they all say, ‘Yes, it would.’ Maybe then they could justify it a little better at home.”
Sometimes the cost at work goes beyond a smaller paycheck for a few weeks. “In today’s job market, continuously leaving early is perceived as ‘not being a team player’ behavior,” Stanley says. “This in turn can affect the individual’s salary and income, forcing choices between their full-time job and their avocation.”
There’s also been a shift in the occupations held by officials. For many years, educators made up a large contingent of the officials’ ranks. Their schedules obviously meshed well with interscholastic contests and many were eager to pick up the extra income. Now, educators are a distinct minority in many associations and officials come from varied walks of life.
At least one official points a finger at teacher contracts that make ancillary duties such as timing or scoring more lucrative than officiating. “We know timers are making more money than we’re making on the field,” Stanley says. “Chain gangs are getting $40-50 a game and we get $52. I don’t blame them, though. For the same money, less hassle, and it’s added to my pension, why would I get in my car and drive 35-40 miles in bad traffic to a game?”
Of course, athletic directors are in a bind as dollars become scarcer at the same time everybody is looking for more of them. Officials are sometimes asked if their fees should be raised even if it means shutting down some programs. But as Stanley points out, “If we can no longer supply officials, [administrators] will have to cut programs anyway. The schools must re-examine their commitment to interscholastic sports programs. If these sports are not adequately funded to the extent that they can pay equitable game fees to qualified officials, then maybe they are doomed to extinction.”

Communication Works
Certainly, that worst-case scenario is unlikely to occur. Most officials are mindful of the financial crunch athletic directors face. But many of the things officials appreciate cost little except time. And the little things can mean a lot.
“We call it the care and feeding of officials,” Struckhoff says with a laugh. “If I’m greeted when I get there, if there’s some acknowledgment that I’m there to work that day, I’ll remember that.”
It’s also important to understand that changing schedules without notifying the officials and assignor is about the worst thing you can do. As the supply of officials gets tighter, scheduling becomes more difficult leaving little margin for last-second adjustments. Again, this problem is usually more pronounced at the sub-varsity level, where scheduling tends to be a little more fluid.
“They’ll call the day of the game and say, ‘We changed that game and forgot to tell you. We’re going to play it tomorrow,’” Basye says. “And I’ll tell them, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to get officials. We don’t have any more.’ Sometimes these games are at two or three in the afternoon, when many officials aren’t even available to work.”
Communication can go well beyond simply reporting schedule changes, though. Assignors usually know what times and days have the most officials available and, in some cases, can suggest scheduling options. They can even be a conduit to the rest of the association on other issues.
And there are right ways to express concerns about the quality of officiating. Most associations welcome feedback from athletic directors, although not at high volume during or just after a game.
“You can’t fix something if you haven’t been told it’s broke,” Reardon says. “Sometimes we don’t hear enough about a problem until it’s too late. I would almost make it mandatory that if athletic directors have a problem, they have to report it. That way, if we have a problem, we can nip it in the bud.”
It also helps to provide positive, as well as negative, feedback. In general, the best officials are the ones you don’t even notice, but a little positive recognition for a job well done can serve a couple of purposes.
“Good feedback not only makes someone work that much harder, but it also leads us to people who can help others become that kind of official,” Reardon says. “We tend to always hear the negative feedback, but there are many good athletic directors who provide both.”
Communication, of course, is a two-way street. Just as coaches and athletic directors can provide some gauge of how an official is performing, so can an official provide some insight on a coaching staff.
“My ideal athletic director is Bill Dod from Souhegan (N.H.) High School,” Reardon says. “He meets with his coaches in each sport and tells them what to expect from officials and if there is a problem to tell him about it so he can handle it. Plus, after every game, officials receive an envelope with a roster and list of the coaching staff, and a place for comments—good, bad, and ugly. He wants to hear everything about that game from each official. It’s stamped and pre-addressed to the school, so all you have to do is fill it out. If more athletic directors did something like that, they wouldn’t be blind-sided when someone said that their coach did this or that.”

No Easy Answers
It may seem that all this leaves the athletic director shouldering much of the load. And whether it’s efforts to improve sportsmanship, making officials feel welcome, or helping identify potential officials, they probably are.
“I think the administrators have the biggest burden, like it or not,” Struckhoff says, “because they’re the people who have the big picture in mind. The coach has to coach, so they want to do well for their kids and win. And the officials are a very neutral party. The administrator in this position has the most responsibility and has to have some standards that folks are going to abide by. If they don’t, nobody is really going to.”
“The athletic director is the captain of the coaches,” Reardon says. “If you ask me, a coaching staff is only as good as the athletic director.”
The causes behind the shortage of officials certainly run too deep to be solved by just one group of people. It can only improve if everyone involved—officials, coaches, administrators—works together to increase the number of officials coming in and make it more attractive for them to stay.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says Bill Burroughs, Coordinator of Officials for the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. “The officials need to recognize that if it wasn’t for the athletic directors with the game assignments, there would be fewer places to referee. But the athletic directors need to appreciate the fact that the kids are the most important part of the puzzle and you don’t have good games for the kids without good officials.”