Referee shortage: High schools, officials grasp for solutions to complex problem

Sunday , July 22, 2018 - 5:30 AM1 comment

Weber and Layton warmed up for their high school softball game April 19 on a temperate spring day. The Weber school grounds were busy with a home soccer game near the softball field and a track meet just up the hill at the football stadium.

The field was fine and there wasn’t a drop of rain. Yet Weber and Layton rescheduled their game to May.

Only one umpire showed up.

The next day, just a few miles down the road, Marianne Gardner-Smith pressed forward to officiate an Ogden vs. Juan Diego softball game by herself — a marathon that ended when Ogden scored nine runs in the seventh inning to win 21-20.

The following Tuesday, Box Elder and Roy played with just one umpire.

Two days later, on April 26, Ogden and Bonneville rescheduled a softball game because the schools couldn’t find umpires. Later that afternoon, Clearfield and Davis were set to play until just one umpire showed up.

Over a one-week stretch, the effects of a high school referee shortage in Utah were felt particularly hard. It wasn’t limited to that week, though.

Every week, schools, referee associations and state high school associations, including the UHSAA, juggle a high school referee shortage that’s not only affecting Weber County, Davis County and the rest of Utah, but the rest of the nation.

The shortage at the high school level is due to a myriad of factors — low resources, verbal abuse and low pay, among them — and athletic directors, coaches and referees agree that there’s not one, simple solution.

A STRETCHING OF RESOURCES

Officials aren’t quitting en masse. UHSAA Assistant Director Jeff Cluff, who oversees officiating in Utah, says the number of officials in Utah is down about 1 percent. Rather, it’s a scheduling headache that helps create the problem.

“Our problem isn’t the number of officials. Our problem is the time the games are played in our outdoor sports. Our outdoor sports playing at 3, 3:30, 4 in the afternoon create a real scheduling issue for us, and our weather only adds to that problem,” Cluff said.

The spring sports season is particularly hectic because baseball, softball and soccer all play at 3:30 p.m., except for rare night starts for soccer. But the shortage isn’t limited to the spring.

In the fall, football sees officials shortages, mostly in sub-varsity games that are played in the afternoon. Local girls soccer starts at 3:30 p.m. and it’s had its fair share of documented problems in recent years. And this upcoming season, Region 1 is changing volleyball matches from 6 p.m. starts to 3:30 p.m.

Compounding the problem further: there are more high school sports opportunities these days, a growing number of schools, and club and recreational sports also being played at the same time.

In many cases, the club and rec sports scene pays the same or better than high school games. Those games start later in the afternoon, allowing better availability of officials who are otherwise working full-time jobs.

Larry Colledge, president of the Salt Lake Association of Softball Umpires, says he’s been in charge of the softball umpires association for 25 years and that there was a stretching of resources 25 years ago, too.

“It seems like we struggle every year with the number of umpires. We get new umpires coming in and the demand goes up, and so we’re still short,” Colledge said.

It’s not just softball. All around Weber and Davis counties, as well as the whole Wasatch Front, baseball games are being played with one umpire instead of two, and soccer matches are being played with two officials instead of three.

Normally, sub-varsity games (JV, sophomore, freshman) are impacted the most. Local referee assigners give priority to filling varsity games, so it’s especially telling of the current climate if numerous varsity games are going ahead with depleted officiating teams.

Resources are further stretched when more regions are playing games on the same days. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are typically the hardest days to find umpires.

Mike Reimer, the president of the Northern Utah Baseball Umpires Association, said the situation is so bad that “if you can fog up a mirror, as they say, we have you on a field.”

“You get two or three days per week where you get rainouts and all the schools want to reschedule, as well they should, and then they’ll want to reschedule on a Tuesday or Wednesday — can’t do it,” Reimer said. “With the additional schools, it’s just killing us.”

The shortage means available umpires have to work more, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Colledge says umpires burn out if they’re working 4-5 times per week, which many are.

Phil Leonard is one of those umpires. He’s been officiating for about 40 years, he said, and during baseball season one can find him behind the plate 3-4 times per week.

“When I was assigning (games), I was doing more than that,” Leonard said. “I was doing them because we couldn’t find people.”

Todd Hyer, president of the High School Soccer Referees Association in Utah, says there are plenty of people capable of officiating games that associations need to find.

He said recently graduated former players, especially those in college and in need of a part-time job, know the game very well and would need minimal training to become an official.

But it’s not so cut and dry as filling out an application, interviewing for the job and starting work as an official.

“How do you ask a person to spend hours and hours of training and certification, and being available to take scheduled games and when they do all of that, they get to the games and players, coaches and spectators do nothing but trash every decision they make?

“How are you going to go a young person and say, ‘Hey this is really a great deal?’” Hyer said.

VERBAL ABUSE DRIVING REFS AWAY

In 1980, The Talking Heads released their “Remain in Light” album featuring the song “Once in a Lifetime,” in which singer David Byrne opines, “And you may ask yourself, well ... How did I get here?”

So how did high school sports arrive at an officials’ shortage? One of the biggest reasons, according to those involved, is the amount of verbal abuse officials endure from fans, coaches and players.

Every call an official makes is under intense scrutiny. But is it fair to expect perfection from high school officials — many of whom are officiating on a part-time basis — when the upper echelon of NFL officials are correct 97 percent of the time and have access to video replay?

“Umpiring is a crazy profession where you have to start out perfect and then improve. New umpires come and the first thing that happens is coaches starting jumping all over them, and then we lose them — it’s not worth it to stick around,” Colledge said.

Athletic directors and coaches who spoke to the Standard-Examiner said there’s a pressing need to create a less-hostile game environment, particularly at the sub-varsity levels. Officials who work JV, sophomore and freshman games are usually newer and are still learning the game, as are the players.

It’s there where retainment comes into focus. Cluff said there are many new officials but it’s difficult to retain them for more than three years because all their games are at the sub-varsity level where, as Colledge says, one must start perfectly and then improve.

Reimer says verbal abuse is driving officials away, but he says the officials' associations need to do a better job not throwing new referees into the fire.

“We have not done a good job in the past of grooming and getting younger guys ready,” Reimer said. “We pretty much say, ‘Go online, buy your stuff, here’s our association meetings, get to know everybody, boom, out you go, thanks for playing, hope you win.’

“That doesn’t really work,” he said.

Varsity officials are usually more thick-skinned, so ‘That’s a terrible call!’ and ‘Come on, blue!’ insults don’t do much. But every official has a story of when a parent or fan has gone too far.

Reimer, who has been umpiring for 16 years, says he’s been called the most severe of curses. Cluff, who umpires college baseball games in all the major conferences in the western region, has been called his fair share of personal insults, too.

“Some guy yelled out of the crowd at me ... ‘Are you cheating for them, do you live in Chicago? Is that your dad over there in the dugout?’” Cluff said, recalling a baseball game he umpired between Sacramento State and Chicago State.

“It’s funny, but to a lot of younger officials? That can be bothersome.”

POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS

If there’s one thing UHSAA officials, athletic directors, coaches and referees do agree on, it’s that the referee shortage is a real problem.

But how to fix it brings many opinions.

“We could brainstorm ideas, but I think first you have to have willing people,” Davis High athletic director Mylei Zachman said. “Officiating’s a really tough job and fans are relentless, maybe unfairly relentless at times. You have to have someone who’s OK in that environment for a little amount of money.”

Most suggestions for fixing the officials shortage, according to referees, coaches and athletic directors who spoke to the Standard-Examiner, fall into these topics:

• Higher pay for officials

• Later start times for games and more regions playing on Mondays and Wednesdays

• Creating a better, less-hostile environment at the sub-varsity levels

• Better and more unified recruiting

The UHSAA Executive Committee recently addressed pay by approving a $15 per-game increase to be implemented incrementally over the next three years. The move was long-rumored and somewhat expected.

Zachman said the impact varies school to school and district to district.

“I think that money’s in there (at Davis), but I think we gotta be careful because we only have so much. Do you increase that fee that kids are paying? How much is that going to impact kids’ families?” she said.

Bigger schools like Davis — who have more student-athletes paying an athletic participation fee, part of which helps pay officials — won’t feel the effects as much. Smaller schools might feel a pinch, with smaller student bodies meaning less athletes participating in sports.

In March, then-Bonneville High athletic director Rick Corbridge, who has since stepped down from that position, said there was more of a tightrope to walk regarding money.

“I divvy out what I get from the school to the teams and we rely on people showing up to our games to pay our officials. We hope they make it,” he said.

Not all of the solutions are feasible. For those that are, their effectiveness is unknown.

Are fans, coaches and players going to suddenly stop vilifying referees after every call? No, but schools and referees can be more strict about what they tolerate in terms of verbal abuse.

Are cash-strapped school districts going to spend money to install lights at baseball and softball fields to allow for later start times when they have more pressing projects to complete with the money they have?

Probably not, but soccer teams could play games at the football field where lights are already installed, in most places.

Some regions are already scheduling contests on Mondays and Wednesdays — like Region 11 girls soccer, which includes Ogden, Ben Lomond and Bonneville. But for most regions, it’s a Tuesday/Friday world and that’ll be hard to change.

So the question for potential officials remains: take time off of work to get yelled at, or stay at work and officiate a club game later in the evening?

As the major players grasp for solutions, more situations like the one-week stretch in April will become the norm instead of noteworthy.

You can reach prep sports reporter Patrick Carr at pcarr@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickcarr_ or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/patrickcarr17.

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