Not enough officials: Grand County schools suffer from national trend of declining sports officials
Youth and high school sports around the nation are suffering from a serious decline in one vital aspect of athletics: referees.
As football season draws near for Grand County, and Colorado organizations such as the Colorado High School Activities Association and the Colorado Football Officials Association search for ways to fill the void, remains the question of why this is happening.
“Certainly we’ve recognized this phenomenon in Colorado,” said Scott Saucke, president of the Colorado Football Officials Association. “I know baseball and basketball are experiencing the same thing. It’s an all sports issue. And it’s certainly not just Colorado.”
One issue, touted as a major cause of the decline in officials that has made national headlines over the last month, is the treatment of officials from fans, players and coaches. Officials — who often make only around $60 per contest — are no longer willing to put up with abuse from the field or stands.
But Saucke said the treatment of officials isn’t the main issue, and hasn’t changed much since the 1990s.
“I don’t consider aggressive action by coaches or fans to be any different today than it was years ago,” said Saucke, who has been in the business since the early 90s. “There are right things that a coach can say, and some wrong things. I’ve seen it both ways, but I don’t see it anywhere where it necessarily crosses a line to the point where it becomes a problem.”
Saucke believes the declining number of officials is rather a result of lack of interest from younger people, an increase in sports leagues and games and difficulties with scheduling.
Where does the issue come from?
As the state of Colorado continues to grow, so do athletic programs. There are currently 349 schools registered with the Colorado High School Activities Association for 2016-18 enrollments. But that’s only up from 346 in 2014-16.
While just a couple new programs doesn’t seem significant, it could mean dozens more contests that require officials.
“Years ago there might have been a 7 p.m. game on a Thursday or Friday, and maybe an afternoon game Saturday,” said Saucke. “Now there’s more schools and they might have a 4 p.m. game followed by a 7 p.m. game. Or three games in one stadium on a Saturday.
“It just means there are more games to officiate.”
More schools also means that scheduling has become a major issue.
Game times are moving closer to the middle of the day to facilitate the increase in contests, meaning officials are faced with a decision to either abandon officiating games, or to constantly be leaving their day jobs early.
“You ask a young official who has their career just now underway to be on a football field at 4 p.m., which means they’ve got to be in the locker room at three, and they’re going to have to ask their boss to leave at 1:30,” said Saucke. “That’s become a decision that’s hard for an official to be able to do.”
Different challenges locally
Middle Park High School Athletic Director Brandon Wilkes said Grand County often has a more difficult time securing referees than other schools because of it’s rural location.
Last year, Middle Park High School felt the absence of officials throughout all of their athletic seasons.
“I’m sympathetic to everyone in this boat, but I think we get the shortest end of the straw because we usually are one of the last places they assign officials to,” said Wilkes, explaining that there are so few officials either willing to come up to Middle Park or close enough to make it worth their trip.
Officials are assigned by third parties that contact the officials and schedule them for dates released by the school. Middle Park uses assigners in Denver, Summit County and Steamboat Springs.
Wilkes said that while the issue is evident across the entire athletic program, it is most prominent in cross-country, soccer, track and field, baseball and basketball. He also credits the problem with a lack of younger people signing up to be officials.
“It’s been steadily getting worse, and we’re kind of at the heart of it right now,” he said. “I think the biggest thing that’s got to happen is there’s got to be some of the younger generation getting into officiating. For some reason it’s been a generational thing where there haven’t been kids getting involved in it.”
Local organizations that work with the Colorado High School Activities Association have begun developing and rolling out classes for potential new officials to help remedy the situation. The goal is to get the word out to a new generation of young referees and umpires that the need is there, and it can be a fun part-time job.
“The bottom line is we want to play the games, and the kids want to get all their games in,” said Wilkes. “But it’s challenging, and you have to roll with it because a lot of the bad news comes just a day or two before.”
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