A trio of referees measure for a first down during a Perryville football game in Fredericktown in September last season. Amid a shortage of football referees for Missouri high school sports, there was an influx of nine new referees.
Football referees stand up in the center of the football field during the National Anthem before the game between El Cerrito and Oakland Tech at El Cerrito High School in El Cerrito, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
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I write about youth sports under the title: Your Kid's Not Going Pro. Ever since the Journal News in Westchester County, N.Y., in May ran an excellent piece on the referee shortage in school sports, I've seen a lot of other pieces designed to localize the ongoing crisis in finding enough officials to staff youth games. These stories give reasons similar to what the Journal News reported as why there is a referee shortage (I've added the links):
And the second issue grows out of the first: that female referees stepping into male sports risk being on the receiving end of greater abuse than their male colleagues. (Just like what happens with female sportswriters.) In another story on the youth sports officials shortage, the Journal News made just that point:
The abuse can be worse for female officials, who are often the target of sexist comments from disgruntled fans.
“I’ve had a mix and heard everything. Sometimes it’s hurtful, and maybe that’s why some women don’t stick with it,” said Suzanne Gunn, 52, a Washingtonville-based official who has been calling soccer, basketball and lacrosse games for 14 years. “You just have to try your best to tune it out. I feel we’re part of a team as officials. Male or female, we all wear the stripes together.”
If I had the solution that would result in all men accepting and embracing women as necessary, non-threatening presences in, well, everything, I'd offer it here. But organizations, from state high school associations to the volunteers in the kiddie soccer league, need to think about how to ensure women feel welcomed in youth sports, in all jobs beyond buying the after-game snacks, if they want to stop scrambling to find officials.
The key culprits for the decline include:the culture of abuse aimed at officials across all sports.
the aging of the current crop of officials that many say is a harbinger of a looming disaster.
the explosion of travel and club teams and games that compete for high school officials' time.
a pay scale that some say should be increased dramatically.
a dramatic shift in time constraints on younger men and women who used to gravitate to the avocation.
Like climate change, except less potentially fatal and floody, the youth sports officials shortage is something that has been warned about for years, with examples of its devastating effects there if you look, but with action to do something about it slow to come. I posted my first piece about it in 2010, and went back to this well in 2014 (the big idea at the time was waiving child-labor laws to get more teens to serve as officials) and 2015. Actually, I wrote about one solution to this crisis as far back as 2009: massive unemployment in all other sectors of the economy.
There is one idea to alleviate the officials' shortage that I haven't covered: finding a way to get more women involved in officiating, and not just for girls' sports. Here is an example from the Bend (Ore.) Bulletin on how that's making a difference in boys basketball in Oregon:
Over the past five years, the number of high school sports officials in Oregon has decreased by 16 percent, according to a joint release by the Oregon School Activities Association and the Oregon Athletic Officials Association. Games have been canceled for lack of officials, more so at the subvarsity levels.
In Central Oregon, a welcome rise in the number of female basketball officials, ranging in age from 19 to 65, has resulted in a significant uptick in the overall availability of referees.
As longtime [Central Oregon Basketball Officials Association] commissioner Bob Reichert puts it: “We felt like we kind of hit the mother lode this year with our female officials.”
“When we got some of these gals in, I really felt like we were blessed,” says Reichert, whose association currently boasts 10 women referees, by far the most ever for the COBOA. “They have playing experience in college, and some of them have progressed so quickly that it’s been really heartwarming to see.”
Why has it taken so long to see the value in women as referees in all youth sports events? A theory proffered in this GoErie.com story about female officials is that many drop out when they have families. However, there are two issues that are more pernicious.
First, there is not exactly wide societal acceptance of, or familiarity with, female referees in male sports -- only three have ever worked in the NBA, only one is in the NFL, and none are in Major League Baseball. Of course, when few are in the lower reaches of the sport, few are going to be at the pro level. New York City had its first all-female referee crew at a boys basketball game in... December 2016. (You might have done a double-take when the Oregon commissioner referred to adult woman officials as "gals.")
August 23, 2016 - I am a sophomore in college and this upcoming season marks my fourth year officiating. I absolutely love it. Officiating provides a perfect transition for players who are not going to continue their career in high school, college, or beyond; allowing you to stay in the game (and get paid for doing so).
Here are some of the reasons why I think officiating is ideal for high school and college (and beyond) students:
1. If you were a player, you already know the game and officiating just lets you stay in the game longer
I played girls lacrosse for five years in high school, but I became a men’s lacrosse official which puts me into an unusual situation of being completely new to the sport I officiate. While I love the men’s game and have had mentors push me to excel in the game, I lack a players experience on the field which can be a huge advantage. But now that I am in the game, I have endless opportunities to stay a part of it. I had the opportunity to officiate with a gentleman from Minnesota this past season who said he had been officiating for 41 years. 41 YEARS. If you truly love officiating and you stay in shape, there is no reason to abandon the game you love.
2. It teaches you how to operate in high pressure situations
My least favorite thing is getting yelled at. When coaches, parents, and fans critique your every move, the field can become a very uncomfortable place. This might be the championship game or the cross town rivalry. The tensions run high and the pressure mounts as you are forced to operate at the very best of your ability. As uncomfortable as it is, I know that the field is the most stressful workplace I will ever experience. If I can excel on the field, I can do anything. Dealing with pressure to excel on the field translates easily to dealing with stressful situations in the professional world.
3. You are forced to learn how to communicate effectively
All of my mentors have stressed and reiterated that calm communication is vital to effectively managing the game. Coaches have run off the sidelines to yell and scream at the officials. As an official, you can’t just run and hide, you need to step up and learn how to deal with the noise and chaos and still remain in control. Clear communication often diffuses tense situations and keeps everyone calm. But even if no one is yelling, learning how to both connect with the players and coaches but maintain professional distance is critical to managing the game. In the professional world, communication and interpersonal skills consistently rank on the top 10 skills employers look for in a candidate. If you can capitalize on your on-field experience and learn how to communicate effectively while officiating, you are well on your way to professional success.
Most officials don’t officiate full time, instead they are doctors, lawyers, business men and women – anyone can be an official (with the proper training and certification). As a college student who is constantly on the lookout for ways to transition smoothly from the academic world to the professional one, I see my fellow officials as valuable resources and connections. If I have made a good impression as a hardworking partner or trainee, that speaks volumes to my partner and establishes my reputation on and off the field. I consider every game I officiate to be an opportunity to build my reputation and to make connections.
5. Officiating requires quick, on-your-feet thinking.
As an official, you do not have the luxury of time. Everything is happening at once and in a split second, you need to recognize fouls, identify the rule, correctly administer the penalty, and get the game going again. I have dealt with plays involving multiple penalties and changes in possession and I don’t have the opportunity to stand there, count on my fingers and figure out what happened. It is one of the biggest moments in a game where everyone is watching the official instead of the players. You must learn how to act and react in the moment and stay professional while doing so. The ability to adapt in an ever fluctuating environment is not limited to officiating, but it is essential for operating in the professional world as well.
6. Officiating provides applicable experience to any job type
Leadership skills? Check.
Ability to handle responsibility? Detail oriented? Ability to react quickly? Check, check, check.
I have gone through multiple interviews in which the interviewer was more interested in my officiating experience than my seemingly more applicable professional experience. It doesn’t matter what profession you want to pursue when you graduate, officiating perfects so many different skills that you would be hard pressed to find a field in which your experiences were not relevant.
7. You get to schedule your own hours and the pay is good
In the organizations I have worked for, I get to pick the days I am available and my travel limits, allowing me to focus on my academic schedule first. And I definitely don’t complain about the pay. Being an official is hard work, but the pay certainly beats whatever you would get at the restaurant down the road busing tables.
I am immensely thankful for the opportunities that officiating has provided and I look forward to many more years as an official. I would encourage anyone who is interested in officiating to contact their local officials organization to learn more. Stand tall and wear your stripes with pride.
Written by: Rachael Overland