Officials for athletic events have been hard to come by for the last decade. Many are retirees looking to get some exercise and stay involved with the sport(s) they love. Then COVID hit, and a bunch opted to not come back.
Add that to what some say is an increasing animosity towards refs that can border on harassment and even physical violence — as evidenced by a recent incident in Clifton Park where an unhappy player attacked a referee — and fewer and fewer are putting on the stripes to fill the shoes left by the veterans who are hanging them up.
It has reached a “critical point” not just in Section II, but across the state and the nation, said Chris Watson, the director of communications for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.
“We have faced a shortage since at least my time here,” said Watson, who has been with NYSPHSAA for six years, “and it has only gotten worse. So now I would say we have reached a critical point with games at the sub-varsity level being postponed or cancelled. The bottom line is we are in a desperate need of officials.”
The issue he said, is not exclusive to New York state. A survey of state high school associations indicates that approximately 50,000 people have quit officiating high school games since the 2018-19 season, according to highschoolOT.com.
Athletic directors are left with a scheduling nightmare. At times, they have resorted to scheduling double headers with the varsity playing first followed by a JV game. It is easier to get two refs instead of four and it is more desirable to cover two games at one spot than just one. On paper it works so long as varsity has a priority and officials are assigned those games first, but since not all fields have lights, darkness becomes an issue.
“Rather than have the varsity and JV start 4:14 we have had the varsity play first, because they have to get the season in for sectional seeding, and have the JV start after, and that gets to be a problem towards the end of October going into November,” said Lenard Kies, the Athletic Director at the Bethlehem Central School District. “Many games have been called for darkness and a large chunk of JV kids are not getting full games in, let alone the modified kids.”
New York state athletics is divided into 11 sections and overseen by the NYSPHAA. In Section II, which encompasses the greater Capital District, there are 94 public high schools with a combined student enrollment of more than 165,000 in addition to 14 private schools. Annually, some 56,000 students compete in 30 different sports. Nobody could put a solid figure on the number of officials working in Section II, but every high school football team plays just about every Friday night and there are five officials working every game. And that is just one sport, which begins this fall and nobody is sure what is going to happen with the officials.
And not all sports are created equal. While there is a shortage of officials across the board, it is most pronounced in the niche sports like field hockey, swimming and volleyball. Far more kids play little league and youth softball, for example, than participate in field hockey at a young age so the rules of the game are not ingrained in the minds of youth.
“It’s along the same lines as there being less volunteer firefighters, less EMTs, less bus drivers, there is certainly a need for all of them too,” said William Roemer, the athletic director at the South Colonie School District. “If we didn’t have the people taking care of the fields and the courts it makes it difficult for student athletes to participate in games. We need to take a step back and look at the big picture and look at what we have rather than sounding off about things we are not getting, which is a call not going our way. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not worth losing our minds over.”
Officiating an athletic contest is one of the toughest jobs out there. The athletes are strong and fast, rules are complex and the pace of the game requires split second decisions. Add the emotional component and things often get out of hand with the officials taking the brunt of it.
The widely publicized incident at the Impact Center in Clifton ended with the athlete who attacked the referee after an AAU game facing assault charges and the team banned from what has become the premiere basketball venue for youth in the Capital District.
That is an extreme example of what officials have been putting up with for years. Anecdotally, umpires have told tales of parents stalking them back to their vehicles where they routinely change out of their gear into street clothes just to get a few last words in even though the contest has already been decided. Kies speaks of having the police officers assigned to games walk the officials back to their cars because fans have made explicit or implicit threats and made moves to follow the officials to the parking lots. And attend any game at any level and more often than not there are fans, and more than a few coaches, who relentlessly ride the officials.
Lost somewhere in the mix is the fact they are just kids participating in an interscholastic athletic event in upstate New York.
“There is so much competitiveness and parents who think their kids are NBA stars and that is few and far between,” said Jack Flynn, who has been officiating basketball games at the high school varsity level since 1995. “It’s always gone on, but it has gotten worse in the last few years. It’s more personal. It’s nastier. When it comes to the fans and the coaches, people are taking it way to seriously. We are talking interscholastic sports played by teenagers. This is not the NBA.”
He said most refs have good jobs and are in it for the love of the game, to get a little exercise and make a little extra money. But, he said, it is getting harder and harder to get excited about working a game when he saw the video of his colleague who he knows well being attacked by a player.
“When I hear about him getting punched I’m thinking of all of us out there and thinking anyone can get punched,” he said. “I will keep doing it, for now, but it’s not as much fun as it was when I first got into it and if it were me who got punched, I would have second thoughts about coming back.”
It’s turning into a vicious cycle. There is such a need for officials that some of the new recruits are being pushed up the ladder to varsity before they have had time to season at the lower levels and with varsity sports comes faster and stronger athletes and the pressures of a bigger spotlight. More calls will be blown — no official denies being human too — which leads to more animosity from participants and fans.
“What is creating frustration is when you do you new people rushed into the higher sports and the errors are glaring,” Keyes said. “That said, people are always going to be unhappy with officials but when we teach new coaches we teach them to take care of our stakeholders and that includes kind of protecting and shielding the referee because without officials you don’t have games.”
Another dynamic that is playing out at the lower levels is having one official cover the entire game rather than the typical two or three and that too leads to more bad calls and inflames one side or another and sometimes both.
The athletes, too, are hard on officials but that behavior is learned by coaches and parents, Watson said.
“We are setting an example for the kids. We can’t tell them to not do something and not hold ourselves to the same standards. They learn this behavior somewhere,” he said. “The verbal abuse, which has been going on for years, is concerning. What happened in Clifton Park is scary. I have never seen anything like that and you never want to see something like that again.”
There is pending state legislation that would “establishes the crime of assault on sports officials and aggravated harassment of sports officials” a class B misdemeanor. It would also require the state “education Department to establish an information campaign to be distributed to all youth and school sports programs requiring such programs to disseminate information to parents and other spectators of such programs on the protections afforded sports officials.”
The bill has been kicking around the halls of the Capitol for years, said Assemblyman John McDonald, A Democrat from Cohoes, but it has routinely died in the Senate. The incident in Clifton Park, though, and an noticeable decline in behavior across the board could re-ignite interest at the state level.
Flynn said there are 33 states that have similar legislation to protect referees and govern the conduct of coaches and parents and it would help make the refs he works with feel more comfortable, not just at the high school level but while working youth, AAU and adult leagues as well.
Better pay, streamlining the process, waiving or cutting fees for ref and/or ump “school,” help with the cost of uniforms and gear are all ideas being bantered about to help alleviate the shortage of officials.
The requirements to become an official vary from sport to sport but generally include joining an association specific to that sport, training courses, a knowledge of the game and its rules and travel time to and from the game.
“And then I have to deal with unruly fans and coaches. Who wants to do that?” Flynn said. “I was once told ‘when you referee a perfect game it is time to retire.’ We don’t have perfect games, the kids don’t have perfect games. I don’t give a kid garbage if he misses a layup or a coach if he makes a bad substitution.”
Watson said every school district should implement, and enforce, a zero tolerance policy for unruly behavior, and more often than not announcers at any given school district will broadcast the sportsmanship policy prior to the games.
“Then once they get to our level, the state championship competitions, after having played 15 or 20 games, they know better how to behave,” Watson said.
One idea is to have people already on campus — teachers, counselors, hall monitors — officiate games but the way the system is structured now it is not as simple as finding a body and putting him or her in stripes.
It may work for the lower level high school sports, but it’s not clear who would give permission, either Section II or NYSPHSAA, to use school personnel to officiate a game and if they would have to be certified and paid the going rate or if they could be used to fill in if there was only one ump or ref available, for example.
There is also the question of bias.
“We have many teachers, staff members within our district who are officials but a lot of time won’t work a Colonie game. They either request they don’t work a Colonie game or the assigner will not give them a Colonie game.”
The stakeholders, Roemer said, need to do a better job of letting people know opportunities are out there for athletes and non-athletes alike to become officials and be a part of the sport.
“It is something you can do when you are in your 20s well into your 70s,” he said. “We need to educate not only our student athletes, but I think there are many officials who never played the sport but still love it. I think we need to get the word out that there are opportunities, even if you are not athletic, to be a part of that sport.”
Kies said one of the best defenses an official can have is a knowledge of the game and of the rules.
“In order to establish credibility with athletes and parents you need to know the sport. There is no substitute for knowledge. When you know the sport and know the rules you have credibility,” said Kies, who teaches new coaches for the state Education Department.
So much of how officials are treated comes down to the coaches.
“I tell the coaches to not feed into it. We want to makes sure we handle things in a professional and respectful manner and that we are reinforcing the importance of officials and what they do on a game to game basis and how important they are to sports,” Roemer said. “When players and fans see a coach behave badly they feed into it and it escalates.”
Kies and Roemer, and presumably other athletic directors across the state, do speak to the coaches and, at times the fans, about how to treat officials, but the officials can feed into the emotions too.
“As tempers have escalatedand people’s behavior and manners have become worse over the years, we have noticed that officials have become confrontational as well. Not all of them, but a few,” Keyes said. “Officials need to understand their reaction to a player’s or a coach’s reaction can inflame the situation.”
Everyone understands it is not an easy job and while instant replay at the high school level is discussed in certain sports in certain situations at certain times of the year, for the foreseeable future, there will be humans on the field doing the best they can calling a game being played by fast, strong athletes.
“When you get a 50-50 call you are going to upset someone but through the course of a game we have to understand it goes both ways and things even out and that there is no one call that is going to make or break a game,” Roemer said.
“The whole idea is about letting kids play and no officials means no games,” Kies said.
Spotlight News, The Spot 518 and Capital District Family Now are divisions of Community Media Group, LLC. Our local offices are located at 341 Delaware Ave, Delmar, NY 12054. You can contact us at 518.439.4949.