School sports associations throughout the country are losing thousands of referees, no matter the level or sport. In a February 2022 report, the National Federation of State High School Associations found that more than 50,000 sports officials had left the profession since the 2018-19 season.
“We have seen a steady decline in the number of sports officials over the past 15 years, but Covid really accelerated that decline,” said Bobby Kelley, President of the Oklahoma Association of Sports Officials (OASO) for the past eight years.
The problem is so bad it could soon limit junior high and junior varsity games. Oklahoma’s governing body for high school sports, the OSSAA, is also concerned at the lack of interest in officiating. “For what they are paid, a lot of them just don’t feel like it’s worth it,” according to OSSAA director David Jackson.
The pay is a problem. Referees make modest money, especially for sub-varsity and junior high games. It varies depending on the sport, from about $50 to $100 a game.
But, much of the blame also rests on the fans and an unsportsmanlike attitude that filters down to the players.
The Tulsa Metro Umpires Association has lost over 25 percent of their members since last year. The OSSAA and Oklahoma school districts are working with their administrators and coaches to talk to fans and players about sportsmanship.
In Illinois, the Illinois High School Association lost more than 2,700 officials between 2016 and 2022, according to NPR Illinois.
A large number of Officials for youth sports are being driven out of the job by belligerent fans, parents and some coaches.
A survey conducted by the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) found that behavioral issues with participants and fans were the biggest challenge to referees “by an overwhelming margin,” Gibson said. IHSA believes this is the primary reason why people are steering clear of officiating, he said, though he was not sure specifically why fans seem to be more upset.
Most studies show that the decline began nearly ten years ago. With nationwide incidents like the shooting at a Texas football game where a coach was shot because the parents thought his son wasn’t getting enough playing time, officials are stepping back from the job all together.
Residents who are interested in becoming a high school sports official must register with the OSSAA through their website. The process usually requires an annual meeting and a rules test before you can start.