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Official Shortage Looms Over High School Athletics

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

It has been reported that there has been a loss of around 50,000 high school officials since 2018. In Arizona, some games were even rescheduled or played on different nights because of this.

"We have an official shortage that we've seen across the board," NFHS CEO Karissa Niehoff said. "We watched this coming. [There's] been a bit of a storm on the horizon. But I think COVID exacerbated the pace that we needed to execute at to pay attention to this.”

The NFHS has made it their goal to identify the reason behind this so that they can bring in new officials to replace those that were lost over that period and find ways to retain those same officials. All to help maintain the officiating pipeline for everyone involved.

“We’ve had an officials campaign alive for four years. A nationwide campaign designed to recruit and retain officials,” Niehoff said. “But that being said…we’re still hearing just horrific examples and stories of officials being assaulted.”

This comes as no surprise since some fans often yell at officials all game long. Whether it be basketball, baseball, football, hockey or any other sport played by elementary kids or high school students, fans continually give officials a hard time and, in some cases, act rather inappropriately.

There was an incident after the conclusion of a youth basketball game where a parent ran onto the court once the buzzer sounded and slammed an official into the ground, breaking the official’s nose and cheek bone. The parent faced assault charges stemming from the incident.

Many articles have also been written by local AZ news outlets addressing this dilemma, including one by ABC 15’s Jamie Warren.

“It's supposed to build teamwork, self-esteem and athleticism. But at times, foul words and physical fights are tainting youth sports,” Warren said in an article where she argued parents abusing refs need to be held accountable for their actions.

This does not only occur at those levels. Anyone who has ever sat down and watched a professional sport played on TV has seen this exact sort of thing take place. Take the NBA Finals going on right now for example. The fans of both the Warriors and the Celtics are constantly booing the refs in unison.

Some parents respond to incorrect calls by the umpires as if the missed strike call against their child is going to dictate whether they get Division I baseball offers or go pro. Some parents go as far as confronting officials after the game in the parking lot over that very same call, often with profanity.

There was even a reported incident in Scottsdale, Arizona involving parents yelling at a teenage ref until she broke down in tears while officiating a soccer game. This is not the only incident in Scottsdale either. There was an instance where a coach also attempted to hit a referee at a Scottsdale soccer field.

“It was just so heartbreaking to see," Arizona State Referee Administrator Todd Sergi said.

The NFHS continues to exhaust all their resources towards this problem because there have been efforts to recruit and retain officials that have had some success but have still not prevented horrible occurrences involving those same officials.

“Numbers of states right now that actually have state legislation either on the table or having been passed that specifically speaks to protecting officials from assault,” Niehoff said. “To know that our states and the state governments are having to do that is extremely disheartening.

"We see things on social media,” Niehoff said. “We hear stories. We've seen awful examples of how officials are treated. And these are experienced veterans or even brand new, late teens, early 20s starting out in the career. And they're being treated miserably.”

In response to this issue, NFHS Director of Officiating Dana Pappas launched an officials consortium back in April that addressed their concerns involving the loss of officials. There were 61 attendees that collaboratively worked over the course of three days to come up with a solution. Since then, more work has been done to help alleviate this issue.

“We are developing a toolkit that will be available to anybody who wants to be a part of the solution,” NFHS Director of Officiating Dana Pappas said. “Our approach with this is [that] nothing is a secret. The more people that we can be involved in helping the men and women who officiate, it's a good thing.”

It does not stop there though as there is going to be a second consortium in the Fall. According to Pappas, it will involve a variety of different personnel such as coaches, administrators, law enforcement and media.

According to Pappas, there has been an increase of over six percent, totaling to 12,000 more officials since last year.

This is not the only good news involving officials. Another great part about games being scheduled for different dates is that it allows for media attention directed at smaller and less recognizable powerhouse programs.

Local AZ sports media outlets and independent journalists including BJ Media, Gridiron Arizona, Richard Obert, and Zach Alvira took full advantage of varsity football games being played on Thursdays. The Thursday Night games served a similar media attention purpose as college games not being played on Saturdays and NFL games not being played on Sundays.

While the shortage is negatively impacting the country overall, there are a few states that seem to be doing rather well such as Nevada, Utah, and the Dakotas.

“We do have states that are actually above their pre-pandemic numbers which is amazing,” Pappas said. “I don’t know how they’re doing it yet, but I’m certainly going to find it out. For them to have already rebounded from the shortage and COVID and all the other difficulties going on is pretty tremendous.”

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