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SportsLife: Officials shortage impacting youth, high school sports

While youth sports participation continues to grow, the number of people who manage games and enforce the rules is declining, for a number of reasons.

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — In the highly charged world of youth sports there are few people who can raise the blood pressure of athletes, coaches and spectators more quickly than those entrusted with enforcing the rules and managing games. 

Yes, I'm talking about the oft-maligned sports official. Many regard referees, umpires and judges as a necessary evil, because sanctioned games, tournaments and competitions can't go on without them. But to be sure, referees or umpires are more likely to be criticized, verbally harassed, booed (or worse) than they are to win a popularity contest. 

Statistics usually don't lie: The number of registered sports officials both in Minnesota and across the U.S. has been declining at a significant rate. A recent survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSH) indicates that approximately 50,000 individuals have stopped officiating high school games nationwide since the 2018-19 season – the last full school year unaffected by the pandemic. 

“In talking to some of the state directors, many of these losses are people who were probably on the brink of retirement, and then COVID kind of forced the issue,” explains Dana Pappas, NFHS director of officiating services. “Nationally, we’ve gone from about 240,000 to 200,000 (officials), which has become an area of concern for states just to cover games at all, or with the maximum number of officials on a crew.”

Last fall my KARE 11 colleague Kent Erdahl chronicled how high school football teams across the state were being forced to schedule contests on non-traditional game nights because there weren't enough rostered refs to cover a full Friday night. 

"One thing I dread is having to call a school and say, I don't have officials for you Friday night," said Gopher State Assigner, George Winn. 

Winn didn't have to cancel any games, but other assigners have. As he told Erdahl, "the High School League has a saying that, without officials, it's just recess."

Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission (MASC) Associate Director Karah Lodge agrees that our state is definitely among those wrestling with a shortage of referees. For example, registration numbers show that the number of soccer officials was down 18% in 2021 from the previous year. The shortage, Lodge says, is impacting all sports, across all geographic areas of Minnesota in some way.  

"I think it’s a variety of factors, for one, a lot of officials weren’t working during COVID and just didn’t return for one reason or another," Lodge explains. "I hear from officials that burnout is a big factor, they’re just working too many games and start to lose the passion for it because they’re seeing it (the game) too much, and then spectator conduct and interaction plays a role in that as well."

That spectator behavior can be rude, over-the-top or at worst, criminal. In March of this year a 45-year-old Detroit Lakes man was charged with assault and disorderly conduct after throwing a bag of popcorn at a high school basketball referee, grabbing him by the jersey and ripping the whistle off his neck. 

It gets worse. In New Jersey last April a youth baseball coach punched and broke the jaw of a 72-year-old umpire after disputing his ball and strike calls. And in Laurel, Mississippi last spring, umpiring supervisor Kristi Moore was attacked and beaten by a softball mom that was ejected from a game for abusive behavior.  

Abuse of officials has become so common that  Minnesota State Rep. John Huot, who has been an referee himself for more than 15 years, introduced a bill that would allow the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission (MASC) to fine unruly fans up to $1,000. The legislation passed the House Public Safety Committee but then stalled out. 

Full disclosure here: I am a hockey referee for a district here in the Twin Cities metro and have personally seen (and felt) the impact angry and aggressive behavior can have on officials, especially young people learning the ropes. The stress of dealing with screaming coaches or jeering fans, along with the constant pressure of "getting the call right," causes a percentage of them to decide it's just not worth it. 

That, in turn, leads to veteran officials having to pick up more games in order to cover a schedule, which can lead to serious burnout. It's a cycle that directly plays into the shortage league administrators and schedulers are struggling to deal with.  

The million dollar question... How do we fix what's broken? 

Karah Lodge and the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission are working with a collaborative group of organizations under an umbrella called "Play Together Minnesota." The collective is sharing ideas for recruiting new officials, including staging events like The Officiating Expo, planned for the night of Aug. 29 at TCO Stadium in Eagan. Lodge says active officials, association leaders and assigners from just about every sport will be on hand to share their experiences and extol the benefits of being a ref, which include rising pay rates, flexible schedules and the chance to stay close with a sport they love. 

So who might have the right stuff to be a good official? Lodge recited a list of characteristics that good refs have. 

"A good official….I would say someone who knows how to interact with the game and the players," she reflected. "So, someone who has high knowledge and respect for the game is great but I think it’s most importantly about that player experience, making sure that the game is safe and fun for kids on the field, and making sure that the environment is what we promote for the sport, and what you would like the sport to grow into as well."

Members of Play Together Minnesota are also comparing best practices for "Code of Conduct" and "Zero Tolerance" initiatives, which have been adopted by an increasing number of community associations in an attempt to reduce bad behavior by players, coaches and fans. There are leagues that reward teams for good sportsmanship, and some organizations have even taken to having officials engage with players and fans before games to increase understanding. 

"They’re creating a…. friendship is a strong term," she laughs, "but creating a relationship with the official as a person rather than a professional out on the ice or court first." 

Besides her job with the MASC, Lodge is a soccer coach, former referee and scheduler. She is walking the walk by encouraging her players to become officials, and believes the experience serves young people well in their lives beyond the field. 

"I think when I go do a job interview, for example, I think about officiating experiences, whether it’s conflict resolution or figuring out your confidence and your demeanor in a position in front of both adults and kids, I think that’s really important to learn," Lodge reasons. 

"I always go back to the soccer field, because that’s my experience," she continues. "You’ve got 22 players on the field, you’ve got your crew of referees, and then you have adults as spectators and coaches, that’s a whole stage to manage. And I don’t think you can really find an experience like that where you are running the show in that kind of an opportunity and setting that early."

If you're interested in becoming an official with Minneapolis Park and Recreation's sports division click here

For MASC's Officiating Expo, contact your local association president or officials organization. 

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