Athletics in Ohio are currently in a descending spiral due to the decreasing number of sports officials. Many games have been cancelled, postponed and even rescheduled due to the lack of available officials. The reasons range from long hours and far distances to low pay and old age, not to mention the increasing fan and coach abuse.
Jerry Snodgrass, Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) Executive Director, shared his thoughts on this circumstantial issue.
“There is a strong argument that officials’ personal time is simply more valuable than traveling to a game, taking up the majority of a day or evening for the amount of pay,” Snodgrass said.
With limited officials it will force incredible changes in schedules and it will require officials that are currently working to work even more.
“More and more basketball officials are working varsity and JV games back to back. With the average age of officials now being over 53 years old in all sports, this is not good physically and ultimately results in a fatigued official,” Snodgrass said. “This also forces teams to play more on Saturdays and Sundays or on nights or days they may not want to.”
Oftentimes baseball and softball games will be cancelled due to weather, and often times those games cannot be made up because there are no officials available.
Snodgrass said that soccer has the greatest increase in numbers and also the highest retention rate.
“However, with soccer teams continuing to increase, and older officials retiring, it still has not kept up with demand,” Snodgrass said.
Officials are assigned to varsity level games first, so shortages can affect younger sport levels if there aren’t enough officials. Likewise, the size of the district can have an impact on the availability of officials and referees as well.
“This is troubling, some larger districts are often able to pay officials more than a smaller district. As a result, officials often flock to the higher paying game, you can’t blame them,” Snodgrass said.
Varsity games pay more than JV games, so officials will typically take the varsity games when they can get them. This leaves JV games and lower in a bind to secure crews.
“However, God bless the many officials that do mix in younger age games for the benefit of the kids and the sport … there are many officials that do, and I commend them,” Snodgrass said.
Officials are usually awarded fairly low pay, sometimes as low as $25.00 per game for JV or freshmen and lower, meanwhile varsity games can receive upwards of $85.00 to $90.00 and tournaments can be more. With no provision for travel costs, many feel it simply is not worth it.
Aside from compensation and the time commitment, poor behavior from spectators is cited as the number one reason officials are leaving the field. The verbal and physical abuse from fans seems to increase each year and 85.7 percent of officials have said they would consider terminating their officiating services if the environment worsens.
“Coach abuse is getting worse and while much has been said about parent abuse, it is more the general fan than it is parents. Ironically, there are very few issues with student abuse/behaviors – a tribute to school administrators,” Snodgrass said.
Generally when a parent gets out of hand, they will be suspended from future games and or some type of action is taken from administration.
“I believe we need to continue to develop better methods. We need to develop and implement more educational programs – including through our students who can pass that on to their parents and adults,” Snodgrass said. “I do not believe that more punishments such as suspending parents from events aren’t the only answers … it might help, but I think better education is still the key.”
The opportunity to advance from high school to the collegiate level or even higher as an official is also something that impacts the number of qualified high school crews. And just as any career, most officials are looking to move up. However, the higher-level sports are also seeing the same problems.
“The shortage of officials and the quality of officials has hit the collegiate level as well. Since it pays significantly better, some sports will gobble an official up at the collegiate level. Good younger soccer officials can advance very quickly to college positions – which makes it more difficult for us,” Snodgrass said.
It is difficult to say how many college official positions open up each year since the OHSAA does not regulate this.
“The official population at the collegiate level is aging rapidly, there will soon be a vast number of openings in multiple sport areas.”
The OHSAA does not have any control or regulatory oversight of non-school programs such as amateur athletic union (AAU), however, licensed officials are needed and wanted for their contests as well.
“Though officials do not have to work those games, it is a supplement to the lower paying positions in high schools. Plus, they may be able to work multiple games in a day. Unfortunately, that also leads to ‘burnout’ in the profession,” Snodgrass said.