There’s smoke, but not necessarily a fire when it comes to the topic of declining numbers of sports officials in Indiana high schools.
There’s clearly something going on.
Area high school athletic directors say they believe there’s a smaller supply, but it’s not creating undue burden.
But, they are concerned it could be big in the future.
“I’ve not felt the pain directly,” Carroll Athletic Director Dan Ginder said. “We are fortunate to have great associations that deal with officials. They are trying to increase their numbers and get new men and women involved. Certainly that is a great need and a great fear. I haven’t felt that too much on our end yet.”
Homestead Athletic Director Joe Updegrove agrees that there’s nothing drastic in the Fort Wayne area.
He says older officials are retiring and veteran referees are stepping away while trends show fewer people interested in officiating.
“There’s not much coming up behind them,” Updegrove said. “It’s a real concern, but right now we are fortunate.”
Ginder concures, “I certainly feel there are large numbers of officials across many sports who are older and we are losing them and they are being replaced at the same pace. That’s where the real shortfall is coming.”
Nationally, other states are experiencing staffing issues.
According to the National Federation of High Schools, Michigan is down 30%. But, experts say that’s largely COVID-19 connected to sports being tabled across the board. In that same report, Missouri is down 15%. The state association has officially stated that’s because of higher risk factors such as compromised immune systems or pregnant spouses. The Minnesota State High School League, which normally employs 6,000 officials, is down to about half that number.
Sandra Walter is an assistant commissioner with the IHSAA and works with officials. In the last year alone, football officials returned at about 98.7%, she said.
“We are better off than most states,” Walter said. “We are steady, but I’d like to see an increase. We are making it work. But there are shortages depending on the area of the state.”
She added, “I haven’t heard they are canceling because they don’t have officials. Northeast Indiana is strong with quality officials and great leadership.”
At last tally, the IHSAA reported 6,469 licensed officials. That’s down from 6,843 in 2015-16.
Walter said one key factor is the economic climate.
“It’s financial gain,” she said. “It’s not the time. When the economy suffers, people need jobs. We’ve found when the economy dips you’ll see an increase.”
Quality is not an issue in general, especially for the marquee games. And the athletic directors give credit to the local organizations that support officials.
“I do believe northeast Indiana is tremendously blessed. We have a great association doing great things with individuals, advancing into the state tournament, far into the state tournament, representing the area,” Ginder said.
Like most, Concordia athletic director and football coach Tim Mannigal doesn’t see the staffing headaches, but he is seeing signs of it under the Friday night lights.
“My big concern is football,” he said. “Most of us are content in the other sports, in football there seems to be an issue with scarcity.”
That means there isn’t the consistency and connection you’d expect from five-man crews. “There’s a hodge-podge. That makes it hard.”
Spring sports are messy. It’s very difficult to navigate with unpredictable weather. Yet, assignors are on top of availability and can give a gauge of what is available for baseball and softball games that are postponed.
Ginder says it gets frustrating. “I don’t know if this qualifies as a shortage. After rainout after rainout, only a finite few are available, there are only a few games they can support. Sometimes they will run out of officials for baseball or softball.”
“There are sort of blackout days where we are told there aren’t officials available so we shouldn’t schedule there. But that’s more of the weather,” Mannigal said.
“They will say, ‘We don’t have officials on these dates and very low on this date,’” Updegrove said.
One solution is to get students involved while in school. Updegrove says he would like to see a physical education course in officiating with CPR that prepares them.
The IHSAA has been championing a three-year mentor program. By pairing veteran officials with recruits, the state is training about 250 a year. There are also other online opportunities.
Each athletic director admitted being an official is a tough job anyway.
“I don’t know if there are guys that just want to do that — to put yourself in that position where you are going to get yelled at,” Updegrove said. “You have to love it. Frankly a lot of guys don’t think it’s worth it.
“I’m not sure I’d do it — to take the abuse some of these officials take. There are schools they won’t go to because of the conditions, the pay, the fans. The word travels fast after bad experiences.”
Ginder says it’s an attitude they are challenging across the board.
“I don’t think it’s reasonable,” he said. “We often have discussions with our kids and coaches and sometimes partners. We need to be concerned with our own performance and preparation and skills before we make excuses for a call in the first quarter that may or may not be wrong. We are always having those discussions. Society has made it much more difficult as a whole.”