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Sports & Recreation

Want Youth Sports Competitions? Be Nicer To Officials Says NFHS

A Five-man crew of football officials poses prior to a high school game in southwest Idaho.
Courtesy: John Cannon

Across the county, high school sports have resumed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. But some games are still getting canceled or postponed because there aren't enough officials to oversee the games.

In an April 28 newsletter, National Federation of High School Activities Associations Executive Director Dr. Karissa Niehoff writes the number of officials declined by about 30% last year. Oregon reported a 34% decline in football officials alone, but a shortened season played in the spring could have factored into that decline.

John Cannon is Vice President of Idaho's District III Officials Association. He says there are about as many working officials in the Treasure Valley district as there are in the state's six other districts combined.

"Those who officiate," he said, quoting former NFL official and TV analyst Mike Pereira, "they do what 99.9% of the population doesn't have the guts to do."

Cannon, who leads recruiting for the local district, says his roster of about 120-140 football officials decreased by about 25 people last year. The basketball season requires more officials than football, and not every middle school game got the standard three-person crew of referees this season.

For baseball, about 70 umpires are needed to staff each high school game with two-person crews. Right now, Cannon said, the district is about 20 umpires short.

"In the Third District today," he said on April 29, "there are four 4A baseball games that will only have one umpire. So it's hitting baseball harder now here in the short term than what it is in the other sports."

Niehoff, the NFHS Executive Director, wrote that it's hard to retain new officials when they face a near-constant barrage of verbal abuse from parents.

"Despite the fun and rewards that come with officiating high school
sports, no one wants to continue if they are continually berated by fans," she wrote.

Cannon said when he started out 30 years ago in Illinois, the environment was comparable to scenes from the movie 'Hoosiers,' which portrayed a raucous basketball environment including confrontations with game officials.

"I've seen better sportsmanship from coaches and players over the last 15-20 years," he said. "As far as fans, for the most part, you go out and work at lower level games and the fans are pretty good."

He notes the policies leagues like Optimist Football have in place to quickly deal with unruly parents or coaches.

Wayne Dzubak has called high school games for more than a decade, currently for online broadcaster idahosports.com*. He said fans here don't cross the line too much.

"There's going to be occasional harassment from a fan, and you better accept that," he said. "You better know that when you make a call, you got 50% of the people for you, and 50% of the people against you."

He thinks videophones in every pocket have made some folks think twice before crossing a line as a fan, and that the very public push from Idaho's High School Activities Association for more sportsmanship at games has largely worked.

"I don't think fan harassment is a major issue anymore," Dzubak said.

Officials don't all agree, but do say the combination of verbal abuse and low pay are usually why between half and two-thirds of first-year referees don't return for a second year.

Cannon said building up a support network can help.

"One of the things we've done in football is, with the younger officials is to get them a mentor," Cannon said. "Get them someone that they can talk to who can watch game film with them; get with them after the game."

He's seen that mentorship increase retention. One long-time referee said building confidence is a great way to keep angry fans out of your head on the field — because you know the call was right. Most of the time, he said, the loudest fans simply don't know the rules.

"The writing on the wall is we just don't have enough of the young officials that are coming out," Cannon said. "We're very top-heavy on the older end in officiating [and] we're really going to need to get going to be increasing those numbers so that 10, 15 years down the road, we have the capacity to have enough officials on each game."

No games in Idaho have been canceled due to a lack of officials yet, according to Cannon. But the current shortage of baseball umpires, for example, increases the likelihood that calls in those games will get missed.

And while the immediate impact is local, it's worth remembering that today's youth officials could also be the next decade's college and professional officials — if they aren't chased out of the job before they've had the chance to learn.

*The author of this article has also previously worked as a broadcaster for idahosports.com, most recently in 2020.

Follow Troy Oppie on Twitter @GoodBadOppie for more local news.

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