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Officiating associations in football, other high school sports dealing with declining numbers

Officiating associations in football, other high school sports dealing with declining numbers


On an average Friday night this season, Central Virginia Football Officials Association commissioner Tyrone Hicks will have crews at 28 games. Some nights the schedule increases to 30.

The association has 164 active officials, including a few clock operators.

“You can do the math,” he said. “[With 30 games], that’s 150 people if I’ve only got [five-man crews].”

Ideally, Hicks puts seven officials on the field. But the math isn’t adding up these days in the officiating world — locally, statewide and nationally — and not just in football. In what has been an ongoing issue, the number of officials has been shrinking because of various factors, made more acute by COVID.

For football, that means using reduced crews or potentially shifting some games from their traditional Friday night spots. Two games early in the Virginia High School League season (Forest Park-Mountain View and Fort Chiswell-George Wythe of Wytheville) were moved from Friday to Thursday because of a shortage of officials, according to the league.

“I don’t know if I can say we’re looking at that more and more, but I do know the officials are doing their very best to try to accommodate the schools,” VHSL assistant director for athletics Shawn Knight said.

“But when you’re dealing with already declining pools of officials, and now you’re dealing with a pandemic where some officials may not feel comfortable continuing to serve at this time, that challenge is heightened.”

Retirement, injuries and dealing with poor behavior from participants and fans are standing factors for an aging officials population that isn’t being fully replaced by younger members.

In a 2017 survey of more than 17,000 officials from all levels and all sports by the National Association of Sports Officials, the average age was a little more than 53. The median age of 5,528 respondents in football was 56.

Hicks, who is in his 34th year officiating, estimates 70% of the officials in his association are “over 50, probably close to 60.” Larry Kendrick, commissioner of the Northern Virginia Football Officials Association, says most of his officials are 55-62.

Before COVID, Hicks estimates his group already was declining by 5-8 people a year. With COVID last year, the group was down more than 50 officials. They have gained some back this season, but it’s still down about 40.

“For the first time that I can remember, I’m putting first-year officials on a varsity field,” Hicks said. Those officials normally would be on JV games for two years before moving to varsity.

Hicks’ group provides officials for 64 schools. He is using seven-man crews — referee, umpire, two linesmen, three judges in the back — when he can. But he said he’ll be using a lot of six-man crews, “and some Fridays we’re going to be using five because we just don’t have the people.”

“We used to use five all the time,” he said. “So it’s not like most of the older guys aren’t used to it. But schools started throwing the ball a lot. And once you start airing it out, and the back judge is back there by himself … There’s going to be some holes. There’s no doubt about that. But the guys will do the best they can.”

Kendrick’s group in Northern Virginia is down about 30-35 officials this year. He’s told the 66 schools they cover that most Friday nights he’ll be using four-man crews: a referee, an umpire and two linesmen.

“My ideal is five officials on the field,” Kendrick said. “But with the situation the way it is, I have to drop it to four. We have in our contract that way. I would prefer it never be four. But the schools dictate it. If they won’t move games to help me, then I have to do what I have to do.

“They’ve already been told on a four-man crew if an official gets hurt and can’t continue, the game has to be suspended. It will not be played with three officials.”

Officials associations are using social and traditional media and have gone to college and universities to try to recruit new members, but they’re still are having a hard time attracting younger officials. Hicks believes the time commitment for training and games is a big factor, plus people have “so much other stuff to do.”

Then there’s having to deal with unruly behavior. The survey by the National Association of Sports Officials indicated 47.9% of male respondents and 44.7% of female respondents have felt unsafe or feared for their safety because of administrator, coach, player or spectator behavior.

Hicks said each football association negotiates pay. In the Richmond area, it’s $90 a game, he said.

“You’re not doing this for money,” he said. “You’ve got to love it.

“Some of the sports … to ask a kid to come out and officiate for X number of dollars a night and he’s going to be yelled at for two hours … it’s not enticing to them. Somehow we’ve got to change that.”

Along with fewer officials, Hicks and Kendrick point to an increasing number of teams with more schools being built. If those trends continue, they said schools may have to consider playing some games on dates other than Friday.

“We understand as officials that the Friday night lights is the big draw for all the parents and spectators to be there. It’s a Friday night thing,” Kendrick said. “But we also hope … the schools some day will understand if you don’t have officials, you can’t play the Friday night lights.”
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