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The number of high school referees keeps falling. Will your kids’ games be affected?

Joint replacements extend these football referees' officiating careers

Five football officials worked together for the first game of the season. They all have had joint replacements so that they can continue officiating football games. They have been officials for more than 20 years.
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Five football officials worked together for the first game of the season. They all have had joint replacements so that they can continue officiating football games. They have been officials for more than 20 years.

Ty Jones doesn’t want to make the situation seem apocalyptic. That said, he knows there could be a problem just over the horizon.

Jones, the executive director of the Idaho High School Activities Association, said the amount of people signing up to be high school referees continues to fall.

During the 2011-12 school year, the association had 2,034 registered officials in eight sports across the state — basketball, football, volleyball, wrestling, baseball, track, softball and soccer. In the 2016-17 school year, that number fell to 1,864, a loss of 170 officials, according to data provided by the association. That’s a loss of about 8.4 percent.

That means the quality of student athletes’ games suffer, Jones said. A handful of games have been officiated with an insufficient amount of referees and some have been rescheduled to accommodate officials’ schedules.

“Why do people get mad officials? Because they miss things,” Jones said. “I could not imagine trying to do a good job with just one official or just one umpire on games where you need two normally.”

At the moment, Jones says his level of worry is at a six or seven on a 10-point scale. After all, no sporting events in the state have been canceled due to a lack of officials to his knowledge.

That doesn’t, however, mean he’s in the clear.

“I don’t want to say we’re close (real consequences),” Jones said. “But we’re getting close.”

WHY REFS ARE LEAVING

Last summer, the Idaho Statesman reached out to officials in several different sports in attempt to understand why referees at all levels have left. Their answers varied.

Scott Orr, the District Three commissioner for Idaho high school football, told the Idaho Statesman he believed part of it is a lack of pay. Five to eight hours of work for — at most —$60, isn’t really worth it.

The bigger reason, however, was the conduct of parents and fans in the stands, according to officials. It starts at the lowest levels.

Rob Brown, the chief umpire for Little League for the majority of the Treasure Valley, said the poor conduct of parents at the little league level leads to less officials wanting to stay around and work their way up to the high school level.

“By the time they are screamed at and yelled at, it’s not fun,” Brown said. “It takes too long to get to the point where it doesn’t bother them.”

“Right now we have enough officials to get it covered, but barely covered,” Jones said. “That is definitely not ideal.”

The number of losses might not seem drastic, but their effects are felt, according to Third District Baseball Commissioner Shannon Bryson. A major reason for declining numbers in his area is the cost of equipment, he said. Umpires buy their own gear, which can cost hundreds.

“Because of those few times it does get tough, I’d say (the need for officials) is about an eight (out of 10),” Bryson said.

HOW BAD IS IT?

Basketball and football experienced the highest percentage of losses from the 2011-12 school year to the 2016-17 school year. Basketball lost 66 of its 573 officials it had in 2011-12, a loss of 11.5 percent. Football had 444 officials in 2011-12, which dipped to 393 in 2016-17, a loss of 11.4 percent.

Jones said he expected the final numbers from 2017-18 to look similar to last school year’s.

Last year, a combined 69 junior varsity and varsity baseball games only had a single umpire in Bryson’s district, which includes schools from Mountain Home to McCall to Eastern Oregon. In perfect conditions, a high school game has two umpires.

A total of about 15 games were rescheduled due to a lack of umpires in his area. Bryson said he expects his crew of 60 officials to be similarly thin this baseball season.

In basketball, the issue of not having enough referees could be spotlighted in 2019. In January, the IHSAA approved adding a third official for the state basketball tournaments compared to the normal two that leagues in the Treasure Valley use. The expectation is that leagues and schools could request a third official for varsity regular season games as well as for district tournaments. The junior varsity and sophomore teams would still use two officials.

Tobi Cook and Andrea Holland-Colbert, with a combined 37 years of experience as referees, became the first all-woman officiating crew to call a state basketball championship game in Idaho Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017.

Tol Gropp, the athletic director at Timberline High School and a member of the IHSAA Board of Directors, said he is in favor of an extra official for the state tournament but feels it could be problematic for an entire season. Coaches will likely want three officials at all times to simulate what state tournaments would be like, Gropp said.

“Where are they getting those officials from? The sub-varsity pool? Many would argue that we don't have enough good officials as it is, so if we get a crew of three who aren't qualified to handle the high intensity, physical, fast game of the varsity level,” Gropp said. “Then it won't be better, it will be worse.”

If the association is struggling to find two officials for regular season games, Gropp wonders how the state would be able to regularly support three. For the 5A Southern Idaho Conference classification alone, that would mean at least five more officials a night, each costing an additional $40. That would be a total of about $800 a year, Gropp said.

“I’m sure we could use the money better in many areas of our athletic programs,” Gropp said. “But if the officials and folks who want it are right, then I’m OK spending the extra money on officials.”

SCHEDULING MAKES A DIFFERENCE

Bryson estimates that during a baseball season, he schedules out an average of 85-90 games per week, with the majority of those coming on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. He believes that if games were scheduled regularly on Mondays and Wednesdays as well, his crews wouldn’t be stretched as thin on game days, though athletic directors like Boise High School’s Tracy Leinen are doing their best to accommodate.

“We already play on Mondays and Wednesday’s to help accommodate officials,” Leinen said. “We have had to reschedule events but not very often.”

IHSAA rules mandate pitchers cannot pitch three days-in-a-row under any circumstances. If a pitcher makes 110 pitches in a varsity game, he must rest for three days, per the 2018 rules.

“If they pushed more games to Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, we probably wouldn’t have to worry about a one-man crew,” Bryson said. “(But) they need pitchers to have enough days in-between ... it puts them in a bind. It’s tough when there’s that many games.”

In basketball, David Lee is the District Three basketball commissioner; he oversees 57 schools and said he has a total of about 180 officials. This season, the majority of games were officiated with the standard two referees, he said. There have been junior high games played with just one official, however.

“We’ve actually had to ... (ask) a couple schools to move to different nights to accommodate officials,” Lee said. “It’s getting to the point ... that we might have to ask a school ahead of time.”

In football, Orr said he hasn’t had to reschedule or cancel any games. He has, however, asked to move games up earlier.

“As an example, (I might) ask if an afternoon game could start at 3 p.m. instead of 3:30 or 4 p.m. so the officials could get to another site to work another game,” Orr said.

Working games down an official isn’t as big a deal for football, which generally has five or six officials. In baseball and basketball, however, the difference between two officials and one official is drastic.

As a former athletic director himself, Jones understands the difficulty in rescheduling. It means parents might have to miss a game they had taken time off from work for.

“I miss a lot of things about being at a school. Rescheduling is not one of them,” Jones, who used to serve as Jerome’s athletic director, said with a laugh. “I know what its like to change a game. It’s bad for everyone.”

Michael Katz: 208-377-6444, @MichaelLKatz

Interested in becoming a high school official?

Visit http://highschoolofficials.com/ and fill out an application. You can also visit the National Federation of State High School Associations website for more information on high school athletics and how to get involved.

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