Some get too old to keep up with the speed of the game. Some can’t make the time worth their while. Some have too many schedule conflicts. Some get tired of being treated unfairly by fans. Some simply lose interest. For all these reasons and more, the number of high school sports officials continues to decline in north central Idaho.
According to information provided by the Idaho High School Activities Association, the governing body for Idaho high school sports, the number of registered officials in District II has decreased by more than 16 percent since the 2014-15 school year, including a decline in five of the eight sports for which the IHSAA offers certification. The shortages often lead to last-minute shuffling, which can cause events to be postponed, rescheduled or canceled — a domino effect that ultimately devalues the high school sports experience.
But the downward trend isn’t unique to this district. The IHSAA and other governing bodies, including the National Federation of State High School Associations, have made public pleas for officials. Media outlets all around the country have covered their local referee crisis. Some common themes are evident, but solutions are not.
IHSAA assistant director Julie Hammons, who also recently absorbed the role of officials coordinator, could not provide specific numbers or estimates on how many officials are registered for the current school year. But she did say those totals likely will skew year-over-year averages because of the coronavirus pandemic and how it has affected high school sports throughout Idaho.
“We have seen some hesitation on the part of some of our officials because there are so many unknowns,” Hammons said. “We are all hoping that once we kind of get out of this immediate situation we’re in that there will be people that will feel the financial effects of 2020 for a bit and we hope that they look at being a high school official (and) making some extra bucks.”
District II, which had the fewest officials among Idaho’s six districts during the 2019-20 academic year, has experienced mixed results during the pandemic.
Corky Fazio, the district’s football and basketball commissioner, said he lost between 12 and 15 football officials this year, but gained about 25 basketball officials — some of whom normally work in Washington state, but crossed state lines to work in Idaho as Washington’s high school sports seasons are on hold.
Wrestling commissioner George Germer only has six officials — half of what he had last year — and softball commissioner Pat Zink, although he didn’t provide a number, said his figures are “really hard to work with.”
Fazio said the football shortage, while difficult to manage, created minimal scheduling headaches this fall. He’s understandably “tickled pink” by his basketball surplus.
For Germer, the less-than-robust wrestling figures actually fit his preference. About half of District 2’s high schools field wrestling teams, so when referee numbers are high, there’s less work to go around and fewer opportunities for Germer to get to know and evaluate his officials.
“I’ve had it both ways. I think I kind of like it where the numbers are maybe on the lower side,” Germer said.
If this year’s statewide officiating numbers are negatively skewed as Hammons alluded to, it would be a disappointing setback for the IHSAA. The association has posted consecutive bounce-back years after weathering a steady decline that bottomed out during the 2017-18 school year at a six-year loss of 223 referees — a net change of almost 11 percent.
She said the uncertainty and ever-changing nature of today’s high school sports landscape must subside before the numbers bounce back.
“Things change from one end of the state to the other, as far as what games are taking place, how games are taking place, what those protocols are,” Hammons said. “So if you look at different parts of the state, you’ll see a big difference in the amount of officials there are (and) even if they’re registering, they may not be getting the same number of contests.”
There are plenty of benefits that come with being a referee, including staying physically fit.
But as officials get older and their bodies wear down, it becomes harder to keep pace with the action.
Fazio, who’s been a referee for 41 years, still is spry. But he acknowledges the mileage adds up.
“People don’t realize that in a normal (basketball) game, you can run 3 to 5 miles,” he said. “And then in an uptempo game, a Lapwai-type game, you can run 7 to 10 miles. I’m 65 and running 10 miles a day just isn’t as appealing as it once was.”
At 65, Fazio is only 12 years older than the average official, an issue that’s plaguing the industry. The National Association of Sports Officials recently surveyed more than 17,000 referees, whose levels of experience range from youth sports to the pros, and found their average age to be 53.3 years old — with a median age of 60 in swimming, tennis and track.
District 2’s refs aren’t much younger. In fact, they might be older by a few years. Fazio, Zink and longtime football official Mike Tatko all said as much.
“My softball guys are old. My average age is probably in the 60s,” Zink said. “You can’t have a 60-plus-year-old guy working five times a week. The age of those guys starts coming into play.”
But the physical downturns aren’t the only obstacles aging officials present. They all retire eventually, and finding replacements is challenging.
Normally, the University of Idaho in Moscow and Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston provide District 2 with plenty of eager, fresh-faced and cash-strapped students who are willing to give officiating a try. Pandemic-era Internet courses have cut into those numbers.
But even when full student populations are present, there are no long-term guarantees.
A 2017 story published by USA Today, citing the NFHS, says only 20 percent of officials return for a third year of work — “The dreaded three-year curse, as we call it,” Fazio said. Officials are retiring faster than they’re being replaced.
“The retention of younger officials is harder,” Tatko said. “I’ve always thought, if we can get guys to come back for their second or third year and kind of get them hooked, then you have a chance of retraining them. But you have a lot of people who do it for a year and it just wasn’t what they thought, and so they end up doing something else.”
Juan Marshall has watched teenage officials-in-training wilt as they’re criticized by coaches and parents. Bobby Hicks has threatened to end games because of fans’ discriminatory behavior.
Incidents like these and many more have contributed to the declining population of referees.
“Verbal abuse would be No. 1 why we can’t keep referees and why they panic,” said Marshall, who has been a soccer official in Idaho and Washington for more than 10 years.
Marshall mentors young soccer officials, some of them as young as 12 years old. Their statuses as beginners don’t protect them from sideline insults — even during youth games. Marshall teaches his trainees to have thick skin and confident body language, but that doesn’t always help prevent them from getting discouraged. He said more than half of his young officials are done after a year.
Those diminishing returns exacerbate the problem.
“I used to talk to officiating classes at the college, and one of the things that always came up was they just don’t like getting yelled at, and that’s one of the big reasons you’ll hear from young kids why they don’t come back,” Zink said. “They just can’t continue to take that type of verbal abuse.”
Hicks, who recently retired from officiating after a four-decade career, mostly has positive memories from his time on the job. But one night in the mid-1980s in the Weippe/Pierce area, he temporarily stopped a basketball game because of fans’ discriminatory behavior. Hicks is Black.
“They were calling me racial names and stuff,” Hicks said. “I got on the microphone and said, ‘I will not put up with that. The game will be over and it’ll be a forfeit if you guys don’t do something about this.’ They kicked them out of the gym. Everything went smooth after that. But it affected me personally.”
Many high school basketball games will be conducted with minimal or no spectators this winter as school districts across the state adjust to health and safety guidelines. The emptier gyms will eliminate auxiliary crowd noise, making it easier for refs to hear just about every critique coaches mutter from the sideline.
That might dissuade coaches from being overly vocal, but also could result in more technical fouls and ejections, Fazio said.
“I’m hoping that the anomaly of not having a crowd has a positive effect on younger officials,” Fazio said. “I’m also praying that it has a positive effect on coaches now that there won’t be anything hiding them.”
Hicks fondly remembers his early days as a referee, when he and his officiating partners would carpool to out-of-town football games, make $15.50 for a few hours of work and unwind to finish the evening.
“I had to do all the driving,” Hicks said, “and buy the beer afterwards.”
Hicks was in his 20s then. “Work” was a quasi-road trip, a ballgame and beers with your buddies.
But as Hicks got older, that became more of a grind.
Hicks worked for the Moscow Parks & Recreation Department, where he’d be until 4 p.m. or later on weekdays. Then, he’d drive to his game assignment, work a few more hours and drive home. Sometimes those drives were multi-hour round-trippers to District 2’s outlying communities, which can be hard slogs in the winter.
“Going to Grangeville from Moscow all the time was a big chore. Going up to Weippe was a big chore a lot of times,” Hicks said. “One year, we went up to Kooskia in January three times. That was just out of the way.”
Like Hicks, most officials have full-time jobs they work during the day. Freshman and junior varsity games can start as early as 2 p.m. during the week, making it difficult for assignors like Fazio and Zink to schedule available refs.
Younger officials, such as college students, generally have more schedule flexibility than veteran referees. But those younger officials might not be ready for varsity action, which can lead to mistakes, fan vitriol, a bad experience and thoughts of hanging it up.
“Unless you own your own business, you have a super flexible boss, you’re a teacher, you have the right profession, that creates a lot of challenges time-wise,” Zink said.
But Zink also emphasized that officials don’t need to commit to 40 hours per week — working one game per week still is helpful. And if they can work more, even better. He’s known college students who have paid their entire tuition with money they earn as officials, and pay rates are rising.
Rates vary depending on sport, competition level and crew size, but varsity officials in District 2 can make up to $66 for working a football or basketball game or a wrestling dual. A tiered mileage system pays up to $100 per trip.
Compared to many jobs in Idaho, which has one of the lowest minimum wages in the country at $7.25 per hour, officiating is well worth the time.
“The pay is good, the exercise is good, you’ve got the passion of the sport,” Marshall said. “All that’s good.”
Guernsey may be contacted at email@example.com, (208) 848-2268, or on Twitter @MD_Guernsey.
Who to contact
Aspiring officials can find more information by visiting idhsaa.org/new-officials, or by contacting the principal or athletic director of their local high school. Those interested must attend rules clinics, complete open-book rules exams and complete concussion and sudden cardiac arrest courses before working a game.
But for many, officiating can provide decades of gratification — and not just for the officials. District II softball coordinator of officials Pat Zink sees it as paying it forward.
“There were people there for me when I wanted to play my games,” Zink said, “and I wanted to be there to help them have that opportunity to (play) theirs.”