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‘We’ve got to stop the bleeding’: Dearth of high school referees a growing problem

Shortage of referees could pose a problem not only for high school athletics in Utah, but around the country as well

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Jessica Richardson of Davis High greets referees Maurice Roberts and Sherman Hadley before a prep basketball game at Weber High on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

WANTED: High school referees. Good eyesight (helpful, but not required). Knowledge of sports (helpful, but not required). Thick skin (required). Physically fit. Must work on weekends. Must be willing to serve as accuser, jury and judge. Must be willing to endure some abuse.

There’s a shortage of referees throughout the country and the search is on to find more of them. The National Federation of State High School Associations is even sending emails to high school coaches asking them to become officials, the guys they abuse on Friday nights (it has a certain karmic feel to it).

It’s a tough sell. Nobody grows up aspiring to wear pinstripes. The job has more red flags than yellow ones. Officials work on weekends, and the only feedback they get is if they blow a call, in which case watch out. On a scale of tough jobs, with cops and the guy who cleans up roadkill on one end and coal miners and President of the United States on the other end, officiating ranks somewhere in the middle.

But somebody has to do it. No officials means no games, and nobody wants that.

In 2019, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “The scarcity of striped-shirted officials is … impacting nearly every sport at nearly every level of competition in nearly every part of the country.

“Something has to be done,” said Ernie Gallagher, who assigns officials for several high school and youth leagues in that state. “We’re having a problem covering all these games (on Friday nights), and it’s only going to get worse.”

In Pennsylvania, schools were urged in 2020 to schedule one football game for Thursday night because of the dearth of officials. It was reported that some officials worked three high school football games in 24 hours in Michigan, which saw a decline in registered high school officials fall from 12,200 in 2008-09 to 9,800 in 2017-18. In Pennsylvania, there are more officials over the age of 60 than under 30 and there are 3,000 fewer officials than there were in 2008. The national federation reports that games have been canceled or postponed because of the shortage of officials. COVID-19 exacerbated the problem.

“I like the diversity of my life. And it keeps me in shape, maintains my mental acuity, allows me to meet new people and learn to deal with the adversity of coaches. You learn a lot about people, the different personalities the coaches have, how they think, how they coach. You definitely have to have the right temperament. I enjoy it.” — high school referee Brad Zarbock

The number of high school officials in Utah has remained fairly steady, but there is concern for the future. Jeff Cluff, who oversees officials for the Utah High School Activities Association, says there is a big turnover of officials at the junior varsity and sophomore levels, which is where they learn the business before advancing to varsity competitions. That’s the problem: rookie officials are not returning for their second or third seasons, largely because of the abuse they endure, mostly from parents, and thus the next generation of varsity officials is fading.

“Parents are out of control and some of it is understandable,” said Cluff. “The officiating is not exceptional. Because of the club and super-league culture, they (the parents) think these games mean everything; we don’t look at it that way in high school. Kids are learning, the officials are learning, the coaches are learning. We have lots of people who are interested in officiating. If we could keep those officials, we’d be fine. We’ve got to stop the bleeding.”

The national federation is making a strenuous pitch for more officials, including an email campaign that highlights all the reasons you should join the ranks of zebras. To wit:

• “You’ll be a role model for the youth in your community.” Probably the youth are looking at the players for role models, not the guys in stripes, so this might be a stretch.

• “It’s a great way to stay in good physical condition.” We’ve probably never thought of it in those terms. It would probably be easier just to go to the gym and get your exercise in private, but, OK, jogging under the lights on Friday night in front of a crowd will work too.

• “Hours are flexible.” As long as you’re there when the game starts.

• “You’ll earn extra income.” Not much.

• You’ll expand your network of friends and have friends.” As long as you don’t blow a call, in which case it’s not friends you’ll be making.

Actually, let’s just ask a referee why he does it? Let’s ask Brad Zarbock, a successful businessman who decided to become a referee in 2009, at the age of 50, and was named Rookie of the Year. He continues to officiate high school lacrosse and football games a dozen years later.

“I like the diversity of my life,” he said. “And it keeps me in shape, maintains my mental acuity, allows me to meet new people and learn to deal with the adversity of coaches. You learn a lot about people, the different personalities the coaches have, how they think, how they coach. You definitely have to have the right temperament. I enjoy it.”