They show up in small groups for every sporting event, nattily uniformed, toting whistles, well-versed in the rules, ready to make every call, settle every dispute, shrug off every taunt (up to a point), and generally keep order on the field while the kids battle it out until the outcome is decided.
The men and women generically known as officials (or referees, umpires, linesmen, judges) are absolutely essential to sports.
And they’ve always been taken pretty much for granted. There will always be umps and refs, right?
Well, not so much any more. Officials are increasingly in short supply, and it’s a headache for the schools who need them and the organizations who assign them. A graying workforce, the pandemic and the reluctance of young people to enter the profession are the main reasons.
Games are being shuffled to nontraditional days of the week, officials are working more evenings and lower-level teams are playing shorter seasons.
“There is a shortage in all sports,” said Brian Peloquin, White Bear Lake activities director. “We have always had to work to attain officials, but it has gotten increasingly harder recently.”
The pandemic made a huge impact, he said. “Many officials in our sports are older and therefore more vulnerable to the pandemic. We had several who just didn't want to take the risk.”
Numbers had been declining for several years, though. Peloquin said behavior toward officials by spectators, coaches and participants alike is “definitely a factor.” Other factors, he said, are shortage of compensation, time commitments, older officials retiring and not enough younger ones replacing them.
Mahtomedi's Aaron Forsythe said it's typical for activities directors to navigate situations by working with assignors to schedule nontraditional dates for games. “We've had to adjust schedules in volleyball, soccer, football, basketball, gymnastics and lacrosse, solely based on the number of officials available.”
Peloquin elaborated, “Varsity football, for example: of the eight games we play, only five games are on the standard Friday nights. For soccer, we typically play on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and we have moved a couple of weeks to Mondays and Wednesdays.”
By doing so, they are able to fill for now, but weather postponements of varsity games will impact lower-level games, whose seasons have already been shortened. Also, at the JV, B-squad and freshman levels, many games are “essentially turning into scrimmages,” Forsythe said, by
being played without regular officials.
Abusive fan behavior dampens the experience for both officials and student athletes, many believe, and is a factor in officials quitting — especially younger ones.
“It is normal, and expected, for fans and coaches to be emotionally invested in a game. It is not normal or excusable to lash out at officials, coaches or student-athletes during a game,” Forsythe said. Officials learn as they go, he points out, but they are no more likely to call a perfect game than an NFL quarterback is to play one without an incomplete pass.
“Officials are an integral and essential part of the game experience,” he said. “Simply put, we couldn't play without them. They need to be treated better.”
Dan Pelletier, assignor for St. Paul Cap City Football, reports there has been “a steady decline in the roster of officials, I would say for about 10 or 15 years.” The pandemic, he said, was a big jolt, resulting in the loss of 15 to 20 percent of his group’s officials, who dropped out last year. A few returned this fall. Cap City has approximately 100 officials at this time, he said. “I would love for that number to be in the 125 to 150 range.” Football officials definitely prefer Friday night games, he said, but most are willing to work two a week when necessary.
The graying of officials is a major concern. Pelletier said the average age is mid-50s, with more of them over 60 than under 30, according to statistics he’s seen. He also believes abusive fan behavior is “a major factor” in making it difficult to recruit and retain new officials.
Nevertheless, Pelletier sells officiating as a rewarding experience. “There are a great many positives about being an official which definitely outweigh the perceived negatives,” he said. “It is incumbent on everyone involved to do everything possible to make it appealing, and to ensure an enjoyable experience for new officials.”
Tyler Livingston, a Cap City ref who’s been doing prep football for eight years and basketball for 20, said he and his cohorts are handling the increased workload at this time but are “more worried about the trend if this keeps up — what about five years, 10 years down the road?” With the shortage of refs, he and many others have some two-game weeks, along with one or two lower-level games.
Debbie D.W. Smith, retired from 35 years of volleyball officiating, is an assignor for Metro Volleyball.
“We have 120 officials now, but need more,” Smith said. “We need 100 available every Tuesday and Thursday night. We cut it off at (officiating) 40 matches. This year we are requiring conferences to move matches to different nights some weeks. Every sport is doing that. Schools have been very understanding.”
The roster of volleyball officials is in a little better shape than other sports, she said. They’ve been signing up some parents who “watched their kids play for years and they miss it. College women who played prep volleyball are also officiating. “Where else can a college kid make 30 bucks an hour and do her own scheduling?” She reports that volleyball has also seen an infusion of “some older guys who can’t do all the running for football and basketball any more.”
Chatting with a veteran soccer official at a season opener this week, we were told: “It’s no different with us. Our younger officials are not staying long, and the older guys are quitting at a significant rate. I heard that we had 4,500 nationally registered officials in the state a few years ago, and it’s down to 3,200 now. And there are just as many games as there has always been. You’ll be seeing some games with just two officials (rather than three), and some games will have to be canceled. It’s the same all over. I did a tournament in Las Vegas and it was the same situation there.”