In the last few years there has been a potential epidemic brewing in prep sports in Idaho as fewer and fewer referees are signing up to take on the daunting task of officiating varsity games.
Outspoken parents and obnoxious fans who want to run referees out of basketball gymnasiums due to perceived bad calls could be doing just that. They could be running referees out of the game.
Many prospective younger referees don’t seem eager to step up and fill the gap.
“Over the course of 10 years, I’ve seen the same officials more and more often,” said Wood River football head coach and athletic director Kevin Stilling.
“I haven’t seen nearly as many new officials so that tells you that the officiating 10 years ago is still there, but there has been no new crop of officials coming in.”
The loss of quality officials hasn’t hit code red just yet, but if the constant decline of participation of referees keeps at its rate then there will be a dire need of panic.
The numbers don’t lie
As reported this year in the Idaho Statesman in Boise and The Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho has seen a constant drop in high school referee officials each year since the 2011-12 school year.
According to the Idaho High School Activities Association, between the eight varsity sports—basketball, football, softball, baseball, wrestling, soccer, volleyball and track and field—the amount of varsity-level referees has dropped 8.4 percent between 2011-12 and 2016-17.
Basketball and football reported the largest drop in numbers during that time span with each sport losing 11.5 percent of its officials.
The source of the issue
The problem might not seem like a big issue at first glance because it’s often assumed that giving officials a hard time is all part of the game.
But peel back a layer and outspoken spectators and fans will find that referees are just regular working people.
Newly minted District 4 basketball commissioner Randy Winn has a life outside of officiating.
Winn, 50, has owned a Les Schwab in Burley since 2004. He has his hands full during the day. However, the passion of sports and officiating has brought him back throughout his 26 years of refereeing.
Between officiating NCAA Division 1 basketball all the way through the NAIA and junior college ranks, Winn loves officiating for the experience of the games and the people involved.
Winn has traveled to Alaska, Hawaii and all over the Western United States because of officiating.
“The best man in my wedding is a referee,” Winn said. “I’ve traveled all over the country refereeing and met people I wouldn’t know if I didn’t referee. That’s the best part.
“People watching games see us get booed and think ‘why would you ever want to do that?’ But for me, that’s only five percent of it. The people I’ve met are amazing and it’s something I’d do all over again because it’s really awesome.”
Passion of officiating, though, can only go so far when the bane of bad parents builds up over the years. Winn understands why younger officials want to quit.
“Coaches, parents and fans are getting worse,” Winn said. “All the coaches think they’re coaching the Lakers and all the parents think they have the next Michael Jordan.”
Referees are often easy targets because they don’t have a bone to pick in the game so officials must know how to deal with constant criticism.
“Good officials that do it for a long time do it because they have thick skin,” Stilling said. “I think the officials that let (the abuse) get to them and get stressed out, perhaps they get out for that reason.”
The travel time added to the abuse from coaches and parents often adds fuel to the fire.
Fourth District commissioner Ken Lively is in his eighth year as commissioner and has been officiating for 28 years—six of which was spent at the college ranks in basketball.
Being a referee isn’t Lively’s full time job either.
Lively, 56, lives in Buhl and works for the Idaho Transportation Department where his day typically begins at 7 a.m.
After work, he then travels for a game to officiate, and on days that he has to come up to the Wood River Valley for a Friday night football game, Lively’s day doesn’t end until after midnight.
On at least one occasion last fall, Lively officiated an afternoon eight-man football game in Fairfield and traveled immediately to Hailey for an evening 11-man game.
“It seems like there are less and less people coming out do it,” Lively said. “When we do get people they’ll do it for one or two years and be done because it’s a time commitment.”
Is there a solution?
Both Winn and Lively are willing to work with school athletic directors to help curb the abuse their crews receive from rowdy crowds.
Stilling, just finishing his second year as WRHS athletic director, is in full support of helping referees stay afloat.
Fortunately for Stilling, he said the vitriol from fans and parents isn’t as intense at Wood River High School.
Stilling said he hasn’t had to remove a fan or parent from a game for bad behavior. That doesn’t stop Stilling from trying to come up with solutions.
To help prevent the behavior of coach-referee arguments that could rally up the crowd, Stilling and his administration implemented a policy that if a WRHS head coach were ejected from a game, that coach would have to take a sportsmanship class.
Again, Stilling has yet had to implement the policy thus far. But that school policy only extends to coaches.
“Fans should go through the same class,” Stilling said. “If you want to watch your kid play, just watch.”
However, trying to keep unruly fans from the stands in check is easier said than done, and doesn’t quite solve the problem necessarily.
Due to the lack of officials, Winn and Lively have had to put inexperienced officials on the field just to get the games covered with personnel.
To become a well-trained official in the state of Idaho, the IHSAA mandates that would-be officials have to attend a rule clinic at the end of July or beginning of August.
They must attend two additional meetings on top of the state rules, and go through a season of rigorous meetings.
On top of thorough training, Lively often has his football crews go through a camp in conjunction with high school football camps to encourage first- and second-year referees to understand the rules better.
After all of the training is said and done, officials then have to take a test to ensure the officials know the rules.
Both Winn and Lively encourage coaches to take the same rule test as the officials.
“I’ve pushed for that for years,” Lively said. “I feel like coaching staffs on all levels should take the test.”
Stilling echoes Winn and Lively’s request that coaches be held to the same standards.
“I would definitely support it,” Stilling said. “It’s frustrating when coaches don’t know the rules. Also, most of the parents don’t know them either because they’re watching football on Saturday and Sunday. There are different rules and there are rules that change from year to year.
“If you have one coach on each staff to take the test I think that would be a step in the right direction.”
Is it all worth it?
The amount of pay can take its toll on referees.
Seasoned veterans who officiate varsity games pull in $62 for football and basketball games, $59 for baseball and wrestling, $51 for softball and $50 for soccer.
For a two and half hours of work, it’s not a bad part-time job. And they receive mileage reimbursements that compensate in part for the extra time they’re spending on the road.
The salary per game dips even lower for middle school and junior varsity officials.
A problem on all levels
Finding referees and officials willing to do the job extends past high school sports and to other age levels.
From summer time Little League baseball games to recreational basketball leagues, the lack of officials in the Wood River Valley is real.
Blaine County Recreation District’s youth sports director Juan Martinez said the lack of officiating has hit his arena hard.
“It’s rough on people like us who do recreational leagues and youth sports,” Martinez said. “We’ve had to go to the younger crop to help officiate.”
Martinez hopes that getting younger officials will help curb the vitriol that can come from parents.
“Parents tend to not yell at younger officials as much,” Martinez added.
The need for local officials
The Wood River Valley can help alleviate the statewide problem by getting people to come out and become officials.
The more local officials that are available means less personnel Lively and Winn have to send up from the Twin Falls area to run Wood River games.
Yet for a school like Community School in Sun Valley where soccer has always been the main draw, athletic director Richard Whitelaw has been pleased with the quality of local officiating.
“We’ve had a good core group of local people,” Whitelaw said. “We’ve never had an issue of no officials coming up. I’ve never had an incident with officials. You have to realize that without these guys and girls there would be no game.”
For more information on becoming an official, contact Winnat 208-650-5238.
And, if you’d like to volunteer with the BCRD to officiate, contact Martinez at 208-578-2273.