As high schools enter a third school year of sports and other activities impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, a familiar problem continues to challenge administrators nationwide: finding enough people to officiate all scheduled contests.
In some states, Friday Night Lights have become Thursday or Saturday Night Lights, as teams consider playing other dates to accommodate the lack of individuals to officiate games.
The shortage of officials in high school — and college — sports has been a growing concern for several years — largely due to unsportsmanlike behavior by parents and other adult fans. Now other sports officials are choosing to stay away due to health concerns related to COVID-19, or they are not comfortable wearing a mask during games.
The challenge for state schools and associations remains twofold: how to recruit more people to become public servants and how to retain people who are currently in public service positions. Barring unexpected events like the coronavirus, if a new public servant remains active after the first three to five years, the long-term career prospects are pretty good.
Dana Pappas, who joined the NFHS staff last month as the new director of officiating services, hopes to make a nationwide impact on umpire shortages and sportsmanship issues. Pappas joins the NFHS staff after 24 years with the New Mexico Activities Association, including the last 17 years as an officials commissioner.
Although there is hope that the post-pandemic behavior of parents and other fans will improve, Pappas said the jury was definitely out as sportsmanship issues continued to exist.
“From some of the early reports there are still acts of bad sportsmanship,” Pappas said. “There are still people who go after sports officials after games, during games, and it continues to be an adult problem. I don’t think too many of the issues we see are really the kids. They are usually the spectators, although they may be coaches at times when their behavior excites the crowd.
“I think the issue of sportsmanship is something that continues to stop individuals from officiating, or we lose them to bad sportsmanship.”
Pappas noted that in addition to losing officials due to COVID-19 concerns and a lack of sportsmanship, others may have changed jobs during the pandemic, and with some matches moved. earlier in the day, they cannot free themselves from their work to manage arbitration assignments.
While the loss of officials to the pandemic is understandable and uncontrollable, the loss of individuals among officials to the rude behavior of parents and other adults is unacceptable.
The Kansas State High School Activities Association has implemented a new ejection policy. Any participant (player, coach, spectator) who is expelled for contacting an official or who is expelled for unsportsmanlike behavior towards an official will be suspended without appeal from the next fight in this level and for all fights at any level until the suspension has been served.
Pappas said there are states, like Kansas, that have made this statement: “If you act inappropriately, you will have to pay.” While these programs are necessary, she also believes that proactive plans should also be in place.
“It’s important to have pre-season meetings with coaches and parents, but I think it’s important for the officials to reach out to the parents and tell them about the rule changes. It would be great if the officials went talking to parents and children so that they understand that they are not just the bad guys in striped shirts, that they are someone who wants to be part of the educational process, who gives back and is really there to help and educate.
“We need to change those expectations and remind parents what it was like when their children didn’t have the opportunity to play. Everyone agrees that it was not good for anyone last year. And if you keep abusing the officials, we’re going to be exactly where we were because there’s no way to judge these games.
The NFHS has been actively recruiting officials for four years through its #BecomeAnOfficial campaign. More than 50,000 people have expressed interest in officiating in this national effort at www.highschoolofficials.com.
More recently, the NFHS has targeted high school coaches to consider officiating another sport in their offseason after previous campaigns for other groups. Helping state associations and schools recruit more public servants is also on Pappas’ to-do list.
“Young people coming out of high school think they have two options: play sports or coach sports. They forget the people who referee their matches! So how can we make officiating something that is at the heart of their concerns? When they leave high school or university, they need to understand that there is a whole career path they could follow in the world of high school officiating.
As high school fall sports spring into action this month, let’s respect the men and women who give of their time off so that the unique opportunities for high school activities can continue for our nation’s youth.