Feature Article - April 2022
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Endangered Species

Attracting—and Retaining—Sports Officials

By Daniel LeComte, Peter Titlebaum & Ronald Dick


Respect

One of the main reasons for the decline in officiating begins with the fans. According to Ohio University, poor behavior from spectators is cited as the No. 1 reason officials quit. There has been an increase in verbal and physical abuse from parents, grandparents, friends, relatives and even coaches. Some sports officials have been grabbed, kicked, punched, head-butted and tackled, and the list goes on.

"Never in the history of sport has an official changed their call because someone yelled, abused, berated or pushed them," said Donna Richardson who has 40 years of officiating experience for field hockey, women's lacrosse, men's and women's basketball, volleyball and fast pitch softball at the youth through collegiate levels. "It won't happen in the next game either."

Every official will tell you that they are not perfect, and they make mistakes just like the athlete and coaches in a game. Officials will work to learn from their mistakes and to "perfect their craft" for the next game.

Now more than ever, there is a need for the younger generation of men and women to give back to youth sports and pick up a whistle. Think about what youth sports and high school sports will look like if there are not enough sports officials willing to participate. Signing up is as easy as visiting your state sports association website or through naso.org, a resource on becoming an official.

Eric Thompson, a 16-year Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) football official, shared that he got into sports officiating because his brother, Mark Thompson, had already officiated for a few years. Mark talked favorably about officiating, and it spurred Eric to join.

Twelve-year OHSAA official Steve Marchal said he got into officiating when his son got older, and he wanted to stay active in sports. He signed up for a basketball officiating class and has loved every minute of it since. He has even picked up officiating other sports like baseball and football.

Third-year basketball official Daniel Morrison said he got into officiating to build relationships and professionalism among coaches, players and administrators. Morrison quickly realized that officiating is a difficult challenge and a thankless job, but he is able to stay connected to the game and work to build a good rapport with others.

Understanding the motivation of officials is important. Officials feel good about staying close to the sport they care about. It is also a good way to stay fit. However, the obvious negatives include the verbal abuse of coaches and parents, and the pay, which is less than minimum wage. It is not unusual to have a coach in front of his team preempt a fight on the court, or a parent walk with the official to their car hurling abusive accusations. All of this for low pay makes one question why anyone would do this job.

There is sometimes lack of changing rooms or bathroom facilities. Refreshments are not usually provided. Parking issues can arise and getting an escort back to your car due to safety concern tends not to happen on a regular basis.

Besides pay, safety and respect, head officials and administrators are dealing with other issues that need to be addressed. The pathway to advancement is unclear and, on occasion, jealousy amongst officials has been observed. Both are further deterrents to retaining existing officiating staff.

Advancement

There is an entrenched network where assignors have been receiving benefits to continue to place the same officials in high school games and state playoff games. This benefits older, more experienced officials.

In other occupations, the employee is either improving, remaining the same or getting worse. Many experienced officials are no longer growing by going to summer camps and putting in the extra work to stay fresh and current. Few are willing to mentor and champion young officials, in fear they will lose their jobs to young, motivated talent.

The best way to get ahead might be obvious—be a good referee by getting the calls right and communicating, by being likable and by avoiding conflict with coaches, players and fans. Communication is especially important with the person who assigns the games. After all, it's the athletic director who signs the paycheck.

There is more that can be done to get ahead in officiating. For example, get started early. While in college, consider signing up to officiate youth sports like Little League baseball, and intramurals. Realize some things will be out of your control, for example situational factors such as height and age in certain sports. Other conditions such as league pushes toward a diverse workforce could be another factor that works in the favor of the candidate or not. A candidate should perform to their best ability, keeping in mind that other people have agendas. Fit and advancement isn't always about skill.

Help Wanted

According to a 2019 survey conducted by Officially Human; Behind the Stripes, there is a nationwide shortage of youth and high school sports officials. This organization was founded to restore respect to, and encourage positive treatment of, sports officials through increased education and communication to all stakeholders (administrators, coaches, fans).

Only 12% of officials are younger than 34 years old, and the average age of an official is more than 53. Officially Human; Behind the Stripes, is actively working to recruit and retain new officials at all levels.

The younger generation of men and women is not stepping up to become sports officials, reports the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO). This has resulted in many schools and teams playing games with fewer officials than normal. At times, sports contests are cancelled or rescheduled due to some school districts dropping certain sports because of a lack of officials.

Officials have an avid passion for the game, and they will tolerate a great deal of stress to stay around the sport they love. Pay can only do so much. If officials are harassed both verbally and physically, the men and women who choose to officiate will simply hang up their whistles.

Author's Note: The COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2019 exacerbated the issues presented in this paper. They preexisted the pandemic, however and should not be considered a product of the current economy or political climate. RM



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel LeComte, is an undergraduate student attending the University of Dayton, studying Sports Management. In his spare time, he officiates high school and youth football. Peter Titlebaum is professor at the University of Dayton and a former coach. Dr. Ronald Dick, associate professor of Sport Marketing at Duquesne University in the School of Business has more than 15 years of experience in ticketing for the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets. He was a high school basketball official for 10 years.