"Can't live with them, can't live without them." Referee Issues Reach An All Time High, but Why?
The national shortage of referee's for youth and high school sports is at an all time red alert! Massachusetts is having hockey games with zero to one referee. Also, Connecticut youth football is cancelling games due to no refs and Rhode Island high school football is running with a four person crew instead of five. What is the real reason behind this drought with the men and women of the black and white stripe society? What can coaches, players and parents do to help fix this problem?
"Ref you need new glasses!" "I could've seen that from my house ref"... These are some of the oldest phrases in student athlete sports. Since the dawn of sports, parents have yelled onto the field with displeasure concerning a referee's call. Football coaches have summoned the ref over to the sideline to discuss what they preceive as a bad or missed call. In the ensuing moments the throwing of the clip board and/or headset was seen. Baseball managers scream in the Umpire’s face and kick dirt onto their shoes for the crowd’s amusement. Hockey ref's will have objects thrown on the ice and be called every name in the book. Wrestling coaches have to take the walk of shame up to the head table just to have a shouting match with the ref infront of a stand full of fans just 5 feet away. All of these ill behaviors are accepted and basically "part of the game" for as long as I can remember, and then we wonder why there is a national shortage of referee’s.
So, let's disregard the first 40 to 50 years of history with referee's in youth and high school sports. Let us focus on just the past 10 years, what has changed? Not much. There are still disagreements, arguing, and slander... but why the shortage now? Why does 2021-2022 interscholastic sports season look like it may be shaping up to be the absolute worst year in student athletic sports officiating EVER? A shortage in the stripes mean new applicants and more new refs with less and less experience. This makes me think we are on a 5 year or more road to recovery. so buckle up folks, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!
I reached out to many high school football coaches, and unfortunately they all declined to be officially quoted in the media. In short, they fear getting reprimanded with suspensions. However, I was able to get feelings and thoughts from many coaches around the state at all different levels. Here is what they had to say:
"What we expect as coaches is fairness and consistency. I mean i guess that is a tall order when one of the hardest things to do in life is be consistent and vigilant with anything you do."
"I would not do that job, everyone is recording everything and putting it on social media and playing it back in slow motion, critiquing every call, referee’s don't have instant replay. The only issue I have is when the officials are blatantly one sided and wont respect coaches enough to give and explanation."
This is obviously true, even the Rhode Island high school sports reporter for the Providence Journal has it on his instagram:
and so do we:
"[The] rule book, what rule book? there's a rule book?" I mean isn't this a huge problem in itself?"
"I think that crews that work together are much more consistent with calls, but now there are alot of crews thrown together and they can‘t agree, I even see them arguing with each other on the sideline, guess how that makes me feel."
"I had a kid on defense catch the receiver as they were coming down and get called for a hit on a defenseless receiver."
"We had [a] pass interference called on us when the ball was clearly uncatchable, the ref said the ball doesn't have to be catchable in high school for a pass interference call. I later found out that was incorrect, if anything it would've been defensive holding."
"I heard refs use the F word on multiple occasions to me and my staff, but we probably deserved it. However when they use that language with my players I have a problem with that. Bring the issue to me and let me handle it at that point."
"It’s different now how parents, coaches and players treat officials. It seems so personal with social media there is no escaping it. I actually give the officials a lot of credit for the abuse they take. Bad calls are going to happen they always have and alway will, it’s tough to swallow sometimes but you need to keep your composure and show your team how to act. It is called being a leader.”
There was one person who was willing to go on record, Emerson Kilgore. Kilgore is a decorated football player from Rhode Island and has been a coach at all levels including the NCAA and is now a seasoned official in Rhode Island high school football. Kilgore had alot to say about the state of affairs with officiating in Rhode Island and the nation in general.
"The hardest thing I have ever done is officiate football. I played and coached in the NCAA, nothing compares to officiating high school football and making them money we make and always trying to keep the game fair and safe," said Kilgore.
Kilgore went on to talk about how he felt a vast mojority of coaches anywhere in the nation think they know the rules, but do not. The question I posed to Kilgore was: whose responsibilty is it to have an staff educated on the rules of the game they are teaching kids how to play? Kilgore did not have the answer.
This may be where the problem lies, and accountabilty for both sides. Who is accountable to make sure coaches are well versed in the official rules of their craft? Who is accountable to make sure the same ref doesn't continually make bad calls over and over? Who is accountable to make sure that refs and coaches alike act in a professional and courteous manner with each other? and not be told not to speak out about the real issues at hand.
"Bad calls are going to happen and unfortunately sometimes they will decide the game, I have been on both sides of the spectrum, its part of the game, always will be" said Kilgore.
Kilgore also addressed some of the reasons for the mass exodus of refs in the past few years. He stated that you have to be thick skinned and understnad the passion the football community has. It's a hard nosed game with hard nosed people and the ref's need to be the same way.
"No one wants to be bad mouthed or threatened to the point where they question themselves. [Question] why they are actually officiating the game."
So alot of things were heard and said in this article. This comes from a host of different football people in the state, again... at all levels. I think it is very important for parents to realize we need officials to play the games, but they are not there to be your personal punching bags. I think it is very important for coaches, especially head coaches, to hold themselves to a high standard and a level of accountability above reproach. Also, I think it is important for referee's to work hard to make the right calls as much as possible, be a master of their craft and maybe promote officiating to the younger generation so this manpower shortage can go away sooner than later.