Schools slowly recovering from referee shortage remain in crisis mode

Published: Aug. 18, 2023 at 10:43 PM CDT
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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (KCTV) - Game time is as little as a week away for high schoolers in Kansas and Missouri. The first high school football games kick off next week in Missouri and the week after in Kansas. Meanwhile, the struggle continues to find enough people to officiate.

“It is a crisis,” said John Dehan, owner of Call the Game.

Dehan’s company works with the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) to recruit, train and assign officials for multiple leagues on the Kansas side of the Kansas City metropolitan area.

KCTV5 went to St. Thomas Aquinas to meet up with Dehan and Patrick Crider, the president of the Kansas Sports Officials Association. Representing Northeast Kansas, it is the largest sports officials association in the state.

Over the years, unsportsmanlike conduct by parents, players and coaches gets the most attention as the cause for that crisis. Dehan and Crider think there’s a bit more to it than that.

“I think I don’t think the sportsmanship has necessarily gotten that much worse,” said Crider. “We just put up with a little less, and I think we we have to as sports officials. If we want that behavior to change, we have to enforce that change.”

“The next generation, my kids’ generation, they just don’t have any interest,” Dehan said. “They don’t want to be yelled at this next generation. I guess our generation my mom and dad were yelling at me all the time for doing bad things. And so I probably, you know, got used to it.”

He kids, but only sort of.

In an effort to alleviate attrition, the National Federation of State High School Associations put an emphasis on recruiting high schoolers to train in officiating.

The sales pitch: improve your skills by knowing what officials are watching for, get paid to officiate middle school and rec-league games or matches, and stay involved with the sport you love after you graduate.

“That’s why I got started in officiating,” said Crider. “I played basketball. And then when I got hurt, I couldn’t play anymore. So, the only way I could stay involved in basketball was to start officiating. And that was 32 years ago.”

The number of registered officials was on a steep decline for ten years, by Dehan’s estimation. In Kansas, the number bottomed out after the pandemic. In the fall of 2021, an area Kansas high school game was postponed due to the ref shortage.

Some schools canceled some sports in the height of the pandemic. Officials had more free time. Some of them liked it. They had more time with their families. The field also faced the same struggles other industries did. As people dropped out, refs had to cover more games. It’s a recipe for burnout, but things are looking up. KSHAA’s director of officials provided the number of registered officials for football.

They had 1,123 in the fall of 2021. They added 71 last year. As of Thursday, they had two more than in 2022 with a few days left to grow that number. The deadline to register is Monday. Bill Hicks can rattle off many reasons why someone should consider the job. He started officiating football ten years ago after retirement.

“If you enjoy the collegial aspect of working with other men and women toward kind of a common cause in sport, it’s just a wonderful activity to get involved with,” said Hicks. “I’ve always enjoyed working with the coaches and the kids, even when they’re not happy with the call I’ve made or a call I failed. It’s still a character building experience and teaches you resiliency and teaches you determination and a number of life skills, I think, even at my age of 75.”

Crider said he’s made lifelong friends officiating. He echoed the sentiment about life skills learned on the job.

“I’ve had conversations with bosses in my day job [that] I’m pretty good at conflict resolution now because of what I do on the court,” Crider remarked.

He cited that as another reason for high school students to learn to officiate.

Some KSHSAA schools last year started partnering with RefReps, an online curriculum on the subject. MSHSAA participates too.

Dehan, who has also been officiating for 32 years, targets parents as well.

“I mean, I carry business cards with me on a sub-varsity football field,” Dehan said. “When a dad yells at me, I run up into the stands and give him a business card. I say, ‘Hey, you’ve got a keen eye for this game. Why don’t you come down and be a sports official?’”

Hicks can only keep doing the job for so long. He said he had to stop officiating basketball a few years ago due to physical limitations and is now down to football only.

“I do have concerns that if we’re not successful, pretty quickly, building back the inventory of experienced officials, that at the high school level there just aren’t going to be enough officials to work the competitive matches and games that are available,” he said. “And I think that would be an awful thing to happen.”

To sign up in Kansas, click here.

To sign up in Missouri, click here.