“This is just the beginning.”
That’s what Westville athletic director Mike Waters said about being required to move the annual Coal Bucket Game, a football rivalry between his Tigers and Georgetown-Ridge Farm, from Friday night to Saturday afternoon this school year.
The reason was simple. The officiating crew Waters had slated to work the game retired, and Waters couldn’t find a replacement for Friday night. But it also exposes an underlying issue that’s recognized by many associated with Illinois high school football.
“There’s certainly a shortage (of officials),” said Sam Knox, an IHSA assistant executive director. “We continue to hear feedback from athletic directors and officials and assigners, who assign officials to those games, that they need more people. They need more officials to help cover all levels.”
Sports beyond just football are impacted by that reality, according to IHSA-compiled statistics. But the starkest hit seems to be happening on the gridiron.
Waters, a former official of 30 years, contends the outlook is bleak.
“I’m retiring in three years, and I’m glad,” he said. “This is going to get to the crisis point.”
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Practices start Monday, so our preps coordinator offers up one area item on each of the nine fall sports.
So what do the numbers say?
The IHSA keeps track of all its licensed officials, which are required for any event — varsity, junior varsity or freshman/sophomore — to officially take place.
That includes a breakdown by age. In the IHSA’s last statistical update, tallied in April 2019, the organization recorded just 215 licensed football officials between the ages of 17 and 29 — out of 2,480 total throughout the state.
“It’s an avocation, not a profession. ... It takes a tremendous time commitment to begin to dabble in, to see if you even like it,” said D Ray Tucker, a local official who received his first IHSA officiating license in 1992 and currently is licensed in football, baseball and boys’ lacrosse. “Everybody brings their own athletic experience to the table.”
According to Tucker and other officials, that’s why many folks get involved in this line of work: to stay connected to a sport they enjoy after their playing days are up.
Why, then, is the number of younger officials drying up, especially in football?
Mahomet-Seymour athletic director Matt Hensley, who simultaneously is a licensed IHSA baseball umpire, feels “there’s a lot of parts and pieces to it.”
“There are more kids playing sports now,” Hensley said. “There’s a lot more of a demand, and I think the passion for the avocation of officiating just hasn’t kept pace.”
Maybe so, but some sports aren’t faring as poorly as others.
For the previous school year, 2,701 first-year licenses were awarded across five sports, with basketball having the largest overall total at 811 officials, followed by baseball (678), volleyball (431), softball (428) and football (353).
Of those five ventures, football’s first-year license figure from 2018-19 accounted for the lowest percentage of total licenses given in that sport — 14.2 percent.
All of baseball, volleyball and softball fell between 18 and 22 percent in that same category.
Not all first-year licenses will be delivered to someone aged 17 to 29, but Knox acknowledged “there’s a lower number of young officials ... getting into it, mostly people between ages 20 and 30.”
And one potential reason consistently came to the forefront.
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Mark Leclair netted his first IHSA officiating license, in football, 37 years ago.
The city of Paxton’s public works director is noticing “a lot more varsity games open” in the sport, when it comes to referee crews. He doesn’t recall it being a regular happening in the past.
“I just don’t think people care to do things like that anymore,” Leclair said. “The sad part is, I think, it’s the fans and the coaches and they think, ‘OK, take my money (and) I can do this, do that.’ I don’t think young people want to deal with that.”
Waters put it more bluntly.
“I’ve been asking varsity crews when they come in here, ‘Are there any young officials coming up in your association, your area?’ The answer is always, ‘We have some, but they don’t last,’” Waters said. “They start these young guys in youth football on Sunday afternoon, and they do four ballgames and they get verbally abused to the point where (they say), ‘For this amount of money, is this really worth it for me?’”
Knox indicated there’s a double-edged sword situation playing out when it comes to IHSA officials.
He first pointed to the growing number of older officials. According to the IHSA’s statistics, 1,440 licensed football officials last school were aged 50 or older, accounting for more than 57 percent of the total pool.
But Knox said the IHSA doesn’t ignore “the sportsmanship piece.” That’s evident by an open letter published on the organization’s website in January 2019, titled “Dear Mom and Dad: Cool it.”
Co-written by IHSA executive director Craig Anderson and Karissa Niehoff, National Federation of State High School Associations executive director, included among the text is this segment: “And 80 percent of all young officials hang up their stripes after just two years of whistle blowing. Why? They don’t need your abuse.”
“I’ve noticed that more on the part of the parents, somewhat players, somewhat coaches — your mileage will vary — but it seems like they’re carrying chips on their shoulder longer,” Tucker said. “And maybe not necessarily with you. They’re just ready for the first thing that doesn’t go their way.”
In Tucker’s mind, that runs in opposition to his earlier experiences.
“I can recall being younger and being yelled at, and then when the game’s over, the game’s over,” said Tucker, a University of Illinois copy center operator in his full-time job. “It was conversational. It was never personal.”
Hensley, who joined the umpiring ranks right out of Lawrenceville High School, isn’t willing to place all the blame for an officiating shortage on those surrounding the officials.
“A lot of people will say fans are unruly ... and kids are disrespectful and coaches are disrespectful, and I’m not sure that’s it at all,” Hesley said. “There’s probably a parallel between the shortage of officials like there’s a shortage of coaches. It takes a significant amount of time and energy.”
Leclair said sportsmanship slip-ups don’t encompass everyone, but he’s seen enough errors in judgment to be concerned.
“I understand, especially a parent whose son’s playing out there or daughter, they’re very excited for them and want them to win, want your school to win,” Leclair said. “I’m a parent. I have three kids and cheered for them, too. I don’t think I ever yelled at officials.”
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Friday night football is back in the public eye on Aug. 30. Here’s a look at 10 local Week 1 games that should wow their respective crowds.
What can be done to mitigate this shortage?
According to the officials, increasing the pay isn’t a major talking point.
“I don’t know how much more a larger check — it certainly will attract a larger pool of officials,” Tucker said. “It doesn’t necessarily attract better officials.”
Tucker said one could, theoretically, make a living off officiating “if you were established,” but added that “part of what makes it fun is it’s an avocation” and not an everyday gig.
So the discussion returns to making high school officiating more appealing in its current form.
An annual rules exam and thrice-annual officiating clinic attendance are what the IHSA requires to remain licensed in a sport.
Knox said he’s aware of “some of our high schools” and a few colleges operating officiating classes, immediately targeting that needed younger audience.
On the football end, the Inter-Athletic Council of Officials this summer conducted a free, six-week referee training course that wraps up Tuesday.
“I’ve been to several AD meetings where this has been hashed around,” Waters said. “The IHSA has made licenses available even for free to get guys to get started.”
Ultimately, the biggest factors surrounding gaining and retaining licensed officials appear to be getting individuals interested in building off their passion for a sport, and not letting them be driven away by either time commitment or sportsmanship concerns.
“Come out and give it a shot,” Leclair said. “Work youth league games. Work underclassmen games. I’ve worked with a lot of new officials, brought a lot of new ones into the game.”
“It’s been a really enjoyable avocation,” Hensley added. “If people were willing to go out and suit up and give it a try ... I certainly think it’s something people can come to enjoy.”
Should some not be interested, there’s one thing officials would like those folks to remember.
“The biggest thing is we’re all human,” Leclair said. “Nobody’s perfect except the good Lord.”