High school sports are an integral part of communities in Central Oregon and around the state. While the number of high schools — and sports teams — continues to grow, the number of available officials is shrinking at an alarming rate. Many administrators say it is because of worsening sportsmanship among fans, coaches and players, along with an aging roster of officials across multiple sports.
In the past eight years, football experienced a 21 percent drop in officials, according to data provided by the Oregon School Activities Association.
Basketball is down 25 percent, while baseball and softball are down about 22 and 26 percent, respectively. Wrestling underwent the sharpest decline — 30 percent.
Overall, according to the OSAA, the number of high school officials in Oregon has gone from 4,412 in the 2010-11 school year to 3,495 in 2017-18, an 18 percent drop.
While local associations are making due with what they have, a continuation of this trend could result in widespread cancellation or rescheduling of high school sporting events, according to state and local officials.
Debi Hanson, associate executive director of the Oregon Athletic Officials Association, said the shortage stems from a multitude of factors. Some officials have left because of the harassment they received, she said, which includes everything from verbal taunts to social media harassment to being followed back to their cars after games.
“Changing that culture is the hardest piece,” Hanson said. “Officials are the people that some folks love to hate. We’ve gone from disagreeing to disrespect.”
For basketball officials, proximity to the fans, coaches and players can lead to a hostile environment. Mike Smith is head of the Central Oregon Basketball Officials Association, and he said the sport is “probably the most confrontational” toward officials.
Ultimately, he said, it’s about having a thick skin.
“You’re going to put up with a little chirping and that kind of stuff,” Smith said. “But when they start threatening your integrity, that gets to be a bit overboard.”
The average age of an official is steadily rising, too. Kurt Renstrom, head of the Central Oregon Football Officials Association, said the average age of the officials he manages is about 50. He estimates that the statewide average is near 55, which underscores the need for younger officials to pick up the mantle once the veterans step away.
Sportsmanship issues can prompt officials to leave the job altogether, and sometimes those issues make it harder for officiating associations to recruit.
Renstrom is actively recruiting new officials around Central Oregon. He said he has given his business card to waiters at restaurants if he finds they have a background in sports. Football officials, he said, make between $47 and $65 per game, depending on the level and classification of the contest.
Renstrom emphasized that officiating is not for everybody.
“It takes a certain kind of personality and pretty high level of self-esteem to be an official,” he said. “You’re never going to hear that you did a great job. It’s always the stuff you didn’t do right.”
The OSAA recently started a recruitment and retention committee to address the officiating crisis, and among its goals are reducing the average age and developing a recruiting network at local levels. The association allocates money to local officiating associations, with the requirement that they create a recruiting and retention program.
Renstrom’s recruiting strategy actively involves a national foundation. Battlefields to Ballfields pays the sign-up fees and association dues for military veterans who are interested in becoming officials. Recently, former National Football League official and current Fox Sports analyst Mike Pereira visited Central Oregon and spoke to Renstrom and his colleagues about the program.
Several veterans are in Renstrom’s officials association, and he said he wants to recruit as many as possible. Battlefields to Ballfields, he suggested, would be an effective way for officials in other sports to bring in fresh faces.
“There is a demand for officials in football and everything else,” Renstrom said. “For a veteran, his or her life has been centered around commitment, loyalty and doing the right thing. They are cut from a different cloth.”
Recruiting younger veterans could lower the average age among officials in Oregon and bring quality individuals into the fold. However, it is not the only method by which national, state and local associations are drawing in new officials.
The large majority of officials joined local associations because another official invited them, according a 2017 survey by the National Association of Sports Officials, which polled more than 17,000 officials across the country. Hanson said the average age won’t go down, though, nor will the shortage be solved through word-of-mouth recruitment.
School athletic directors and coaches need to identify future referees among current students, she said.
“If every athletic director in the state of Oregon would find two graduating seniors they think could make great officials in the future, we wouldn’t have an officials crisis,” Hanson said. “I wish I had known about officiating in college, and I think it’s a great opportunity for young people.”
Youth and diversity
It is, ultimately, a youth movement that could alleviate this crisis. Officiating provides an opportunity for retirees and middle-aged folks to stay in shape, get involved in their communities and earn some supplemental income — and those groups are welcomed by Renstrom, Smith and others — but recent high school and college graduates are prime candidates.
Officiating associations are also in search of improved diversity among recruits. Both Renstrom and Smith expressed a desire to recruit more female referees to balance the gender scales. In the NASO survey, just over 6 percent of respondents were women, and nearly 70 percent of respondents were white.
Sportsmanship remains an issue for the officials who are working in Oregon, and that problem can sometimes be elevated for female officials or officials of color. Harassment of officials based on race or gender could be a reason why diversity is a problem for associations around the country — a subject that was explored at the annual NASO summit from July 29 through Aug. 1 in New Orleans.
Officials in Central Oregon and around the state said they want to create a big tent. If you have an interest or background in any sport, local associations say they need you.
Mardy Madison, 63, has been officiating soccer in Central Oregon for almost seven years. This is his first season back on the pitch after undergoing knee surgery, and Madison said he recognizes that all sports need officials from every walk of life.
“We’re looking for almost any age, and you don’t really need any experience because we’ll train,” he said. “It’s fun to give back to the community. You can’t have these games without refs.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0307, firstname.lastname@example.org