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State sees major shortage of officials

If you get a good look at the person behind the mask umpiring a baseball game or notice the crew gathering at midfield for a football game’s pregame coin flip, it shouldn’t be a surprise to notice that many of them are starting to get up in years.

Attracting new blood into officiating has been a challenge across the country.

“Certainly, the cup is emptying faster than we can fill it,” Brad Garrett, Oregon School Activities Association assistant executive director, said last week. “We’ve seen that trend over time so we keep a pretty close eye on it.”

Here in Oregon, “crisis” has been a term that’s been thrown around lately.

“We’ve started to track and build databases of officials since our organization began. In the last five years, we’ve lost 16 percent of our officials,” said Jack Folliard, executive director of the Oregon Athletic Officials Association. “You can imagine what that does. There are just as many or more contests from the freshman level all the way up to the varsity level over the last five years as our population grows.”

The shortage has created challenges for the various associations trying to get bodies to games.

“Because of the loss of officials and difficulties recruiting, you have to double up to a couple of games a day and work more contests during the week. It takes you away from family and other obligations,” said Folliard, who has been involved with officiating for 47 years.

“If you survey leaving the avocation, the top two reasons in exit surveys have been family time or job demands — those are things we’re not going to impact,” Garrett said. “But right under that is sportsmanship from players, coaches and spectators. Mixed in with this is the notion of not being able to advance through a local association.”

Whatever the reason, interest among younger people has been difficult to establish. One explanation can simply be found on school campuses.

“When I first started, most of our officials were, in fact, school personnel and teachers,” said OAOA associate executive director Clark Sanders, who was a freshman in college when he first entered officiating in 1961. “They could get away early afternoons for those 4 or 4:30 games. Over the years, we’re seeing a shortage of school people getting involved in officiating. Nowadays, most are business people in the community who work 8 to 5 and have trouble getting away for the games.”

A variety of factors come into play when it comes to trying to figure out why officiating has experienced a downturn.

“I think high on the list, frankly, is the abuse that society places on officials and the high expectations, especially at the high school level,” Folliard said. “The parents these days are a different style … I think generally, the lack of respect for authority in our society runs in all different facets of society. The kids are great; it’s the spectators and in some cases, the coaches.”

A typical younger person who does get involved in officiating oftentimes involves a college student looking to pick up a few bucks.

“The other issue we’re dealing with in respect to recruiting and keeping officials is it’s a labor of love,” Folliard said. “You have to be really dedicated to whatever sport you’re involved in.”

For years, recruiting officials occurred primarily through word-of-mouth. Nowadays, a marketing plan is necessary and ads for officials might be seen in public service announcements, newspapers and game programs, plus blurbs on social media.

It’s a work in progress on learning how to reach potential officials.

“None of us are in the PR (public relations) business or in the marketing business,” Folliard said. “We’re just a bunch of officials working high school games.”

One approach implemented for this fall by the OAOA is to waive membership dues for new officials registered with the OSAA. The move is intended to help associations with recruiting by reducing startup costs.

The OSAA recently established a special committee, which includes school representatives such as athletic directors and coaches “to sit down and brainstorm and attack this issue because if this trend continues, we won’t be able to have officiating at the freshman level or the JV level,” Folliard said.

Statewide, 117 associations serve OSAA member schools in seven sports — football, volleyball, soccer, basketball, wrestling, baseball and softball. An example of associations that send officials to Philomath include the Midwestern Football Association and the Albany Wrestling Officials Association

Declines in certain sports can be more pronounced than in others.

“I know in wrestling, for example, I think it’s because of the nature of that sport,” Folliard said. “You have to be a pretty good wrestler to understand how to officiate it. Basketball is our most popular sport. There are almost 1,000 basketball officials, it’s indoors and everybody watches basketball. But the shortage is still there in every sport.”

Garrett said the OSAA has noticed over the past couple of years that the availability of officials from the various associations is beginning to dictate when some games are played.

“As an example in the Salem Football Association, in some ways, they’re dictating times for middle school or JV contests because if they’re scheduling at normal times or standard times, it won’t work for Salem,” Garrett said. “They can’t get enough guys out there to get to a 4 o’clock game on a Thursday.”

The OSAA has requirements in place for a minimum number of officials to work a contest, therefore, the associations must follow those guidelines.

“It’s a liability and safety concern as well as a concern that there would be adequate coverage for what might happen during each game,” Sanders said. “There are a couple of emergency clauses that rarely get evoked but when you send out fewer than required, you’re asking for trouble. For example, two umpires are required in most baseball contests and if you send one umpire out, that’s doing that contest a disservice … you just can’t adequately cover a game with less than the minimum number of officials.”

In addition to the minimum number, the OSAA also has a recommended number.

“A lot of schools would like to have five officials in football and have a back judge,” Folliard said. “But at a particular level, the association has to get games serviced.”

Working as an official does require some legwork beyond the games.

“We just don’t go out and work a game without many, many hours of study and training and meetings,” Folliard said. “All associations meet a couple of times a month to stay on top of things, so the time commitment is usually more than one going into it understands.”

Folliard said that for every hour he spends on the field or on a court, he puts in two or three hours of studying and training.

“When we get new people that come … there’s a few that get the bug,” Folliard said. “Once you get the bug, we’ve had several officials work their way up to the major leagues right out of Oregon.”

Garrett believes fluctuations in officiating numbers can often be tied to the strength of the economy.

“When the economy is down, our officiating numbers go up,” he said. “When the economy is average to good, our numbers go down.”

Garrett has seen cycles where several new officials will come on board when those individuals need money during challenging times. But when the economy recovers, or at least there is a perception that it has recovered, those same officials find it no longer to be necessary.

For now, the organizations that govern high school athletics and officials try their best to attract newbies while maintaining current levels.

As Sanders has been known to say, “Without officials, it’s just recess.”

For information on becoming a game official, go online to www.oreofficials.org or www.osaa.org/officials.