School sports officials in short supply

A shortage of referees and umpires for school sports in Delaware has affected junior varsity, freshman and middle school games – and threatens to reach the varsity level.

And Delaware’s not alone.

Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said there’s a shortage across the nation.

“I think the biggest cause behind the shortage is that young people today aren’t coming out to be officials,” Gardner said. “New officials start at the lower levels, and at those levels many find that parents and players, they want perfection from them right away and many don’t understand this is a human endeavor. I think another reason we’re not getting the younger people coming to join is there are so many other interests and things out there they can do today. Many just don’t have the interest in joining.”

Gardner said NFHS uses technology to make it easier for those interested in officiating to take the first step toward earning their license.

“We’ve been very active on our social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – trying to create awareness on this issue and make it easier for younger people to learn more about their specific state associations,” Gardner said. “Also, we’ve made it easy to access information on our websites. It’s an easy click through where you can give your name and information to your state association and they will follow up and contact you.”

While the younger crowd is important to the growth and the future of officiating staffs, Gardner said sports associations aren’t focusing solely on youth to fill openings.

“We’re not turning anyone away,” Gardner said. “We’ve found that many people who’ve played or worked within recreational sports make good officials. Veterans coming home from their military service have also joined, and we’ve discovered that our first responders make good officials as well. We’ve really been trying to work nationwide and call attention to this. It’s a great way to stay active and you can even make some money on the side doing it.”

‘At least 100’ more

Thomas Neubauer was an official for nearly three decades and held the title of coordinator of officials and events for the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association before becoming executive director in 2016.

He said the DIAA is following the lead of the NFHS.

“[We’re addressing the shortage by] advertising in programs on social media and on our web streaming, working with the official groups to see what we can do to help retain officials,” Neubauer said.

The DIAA oversees officiating for 119 schools – 62 high schools and 57 middle schools – with 800 licensed officials, a number that’s already insufficient.

“[We] need at least 100 [more] officials,” Neubauer said. “Specific sports need more than others. Most dire are girls lacrosse, field hockey, basketball and track and field.”

The increasing number of schools and sports programs has added to the need. For example, in the Middletown area 10 years ago, there were only two schools with interscholastic sports – Middletown High School and St. Andrew’s. Since then, Appoquinimink High School, St. Georges Tech and MOT Charter High School have opened, needing officials for their games.

Schools also have added programs, like at Smyrna High, where varsity girls lacrosse started in 2014, or Milford High, where varsity volleyball started in 2011.

Schools affected

While no varsity teams have been affected yet, that isn’t the case for junior varsity, freshman and middle school games.

If the trend continues, it will eventually creep up to the varsity level, Neubauer said.

Mark Robinson, athletic director at St. Georges Technical High School in Middletown, said his school has fallen victim to several cancellations and reschedulings, but said the officials groups have given enough notice so teams aren’t making unnecessary trips or waiting on fields or courts for referees who never show.

“They’re doing the best they can,” Robinson said. “The issues have risen when games need to be rescheduled. Certain days of the week need to be avoided due to the number [of officials] available.”

While rescheduling games may not seem like a big deal, games being pushed to other dates can clog a schedule for players and coaches.

“The need to play more weekend contests and back-to-back games has occurred,” Robinson said. “Overall, official groups are working hard to meet the needs of the schools, but we need more officials across the board. If we don’t have officials, we cannot have games.”

Other schools, including Mt. Pleasant High School in Wilmington, have been affected, according to athletic director Keith Neff.

“We’ve been asked several times to move games off of Tuesday and Thursday dates in order to free up some games for officials to be able to cover them,” Neff said. “We have also been given blackout dates when rescheduling, which pigeonholes us into playing on certain days and dates.”

There has been a financial effect of the shortage as well, Robinson said..

“Needing to pull officials from farther away adds travel fees,” Robinson said. “To date, all of our projected officials’ expenses have been more due to having to have the officials travel farther.”

Is pay an issue?

DIAA varsity officials in football, field hockey, soccer, volleyball, basketball, wrestling, baseball and lacrosse are paid $73 per game, while officials in swimming and track and field can make $65.

At the junior varsity, freshman and middle school levels, referees and umpires can make $53 to $63 per game, depending upon the level.

School districts pay the officials and then, in tournament games, the DIAA pays them an additional rate.

Like any job, a pay increase may draw more applicants, but Jon Beck, president of the Delaware Umpires Association for baseball and softball umpires, said higher pay may not be feasible and may not have the desired effect.

“Pay is very subjective. There are officials that only work games for the fee. Then there are officials that don’t think twice about it,” Beck said. “I don’t think a realistic pay increase would turn the tide of the shortage. A dramatic increase may help, but considering the financial situation of our state, that would be unrealistic.”

Pay may not be an issue for some already working, but it could keep potential referees away.

Officials pay registration fees to their associations which sometimes top $200, not counting the cost of uniforms, equipment and travel.

“From my perspective, if you’re officiating amateur sports in Delaware to make a living, you need to take a step back and come up with a plan B,” Beck said.

Training a turnoff?

Each new referee or umpire also must go through training long before they put on the striped shirt.

In most cases, new officials have to complete 30 or more hours of training, which comes at a cost.

Roger Cooper, president of the Delaware Girls Lacrosse Officials Association and a veteran official of 41 years, said training is only the beginning for a novice hoping to rise up the ranks.

“[Training] includes going to classes with trained evaluator instructors presenting the classes,” Cooper said. “Candidates would then be given a mentor in some cases to help them better understand the rules. Also, candidates must attend a play day for the Diamond State Women’s Lacrosse Officials Association in order to be rated.”

Along with hours of training, Cooper said many new officials put in extra time to help perfect their craft and get adjusted to calling a game – another commitment.

“[Officials] are highly encouraged to go out to their local high school practices and scrimmages to get practice in blowing a whistle and applying the rules,” Cooper said. “You learn something every time you go out on the field to work a game; it’s never the same.”

In sports like baseball and softball, umpires take training courses that test their knowledge of sport-specific rules and take tests using game situations. Another course covers how an official should manage a game.

“This all may seem too much for an official, but we as a group do everything we can to help them succeed,” Beck said. “We’re getting older but the players aren’t, so we need new officials to keep working those games that will continue long after our knees, backs, or doctors won’t let us continue.”

Criticism a problem

Officiating can be stressful when trying to make the right calls on the field or court, while keeping order and making sure players are protected.

Meanwhile, the verbal punishment officials receive from players, coaches and parents can turn up the pressure and discourage prospective referees and umpires.

While officials need to be thick-skinned and accountable for mistakes, many, like Middletown’s Robinson, say the criticisms go too far.

“A major area that needs to be continually addressed is game site coverage and interventions,” Robinson said. “Spectators and coaches have to allow officials to do their job without excessive banter or protests. It’s very easy to shout out how bad a call was, but not so easy to step on the field or court to be an official.”

Schools should set guidelines for behavior at games and reinforce them when expectations are not met, he said.

“Spectators, parents, coaches and communities have to understand that their conduct stands in the way of us maintaining a good quality of officials groups,” Robinson said.

While yelling at officials isn’t anything new, many, like Beck, believe the situation is getting worse.

“Our society has evolved to look at those with authority through a very critical lens,” Beck said. “We have to deal with young athletes who don’t deal with rejection and parents who believe their child is the next Hall of Famer. With minimal support and an extremely large amount of responsibility and liability, the allure of being an official is not that great.

“Kids grow up dreaming of playing in the major leagues, not umpiring in them.”