As high-school and middle-school sports participation grows, the roster of qualified referees and umpires is dwindling. To become a high school official in any high school sport, contact ...
“To officiate or not to officiate?” That is the question, to paraphrase The Bard. It is not one that most people, including sports fans often answer with a yes. Whether it is nobler or not to don the stripes, whistles and hats of officiating, the numbers indicate the job seems to be a special calling all its own.
The facts are hard and sobering. As experienced officials grow older, younger ones are needed to become experienced in the future. But the math is not looking too promising to officiating professionals. High School Sports competitions require officials, and although the number of high school sports contest are increasing the number of officials is decreasing.
While this is happening in many prep sports, soccer is being affected especially hard, said Joe Manjone, a long time official supervisor with the Alabama High School Athletic Association as well as the NCAA ranks.
“I was surprised when I looked around at a recent soccer-officials meeting and saw mostly gray heads like myself,” said Manjone, a Ph.D., and college professor who has published many papers on both the art and science of officiating. “This is not good because as we get old, we get slower, but today’s high school soccer player keeps increasing in skill level and speed.”
A good example of the recent decrease is in Alabama High School soccer where the number of registered officials decreased about 10 percent this year from 583 to 529. Another example is the North Alabama Soccer Officials Association in Huntsville, which in the mid-1990s had 75 referees. Although the number of high school soccer teams in the Huntsville Area has increased by 25 percent since then, there are only 70 high school soccer officials now.
There are 191 Boys High School Varsity Soccer Teams and 184 Girls Varsity Soccer Teams in Alabama, plus there are almost the same number of junior varsity teams and a lesser number of Middle School Teams. Overall, there are more than 850 teams and more than 3,000 games that have to be covered by registered soccer referees.
Officials work as referees on a part-time basis and are not available at all scheduled game times. Thus, because of a shortage of officials, some games are officiated with two referees who use the dual system rather than the one-center referee with two assistant referees (or ARs) as is the officiating system used for soccer games in Alabama.
Alabama is not the only state showing a decrease of high school officials. Some states, like Iowa, use the dual system for all except championship games because of a shortage of high school soccer officials.
Why is there such shortage of officials? Why are officials leaving the game? Why is there a small number of new officials becoming soccer referees?
Manjone says age is not the only factor. Fan, player and coach abuse could be one reason, but that has always been part of sports. Is the abuse getting worse or are potential officials becoming more intolerant?
Another could be the strong economy where officials have jobs and do not need an extra income or because they have jobs, they have the money to pursue other leisure activities that interfere with officiating.
The officiating system used in Alabama could be another problem. Newer and younger officials are assigned as assistant referees who run the sidelines with flags and primarily call out-of-bounds and offside. After doing this two or three years and not getting to referee may result in their leaving. Some states like Florida and Pennsylvania use the three-whistle (three-referee system), where the young and new officials become referees not assistants. This seems to result in bringing more officials into the game. Also, the three-whistle system allows older officials to stay in the game longer.
“Basketball moved to a similar three-whistle (referee system) in the 1990’s and it has had a positive overall effect on not just the referees but the entire game,” Manjone said. “Whatever the reason, the addition of new and younger officials are needed in order for high school soccer to continue at the present allowed schedules.”
There are benefits from officiating, and hopefully these will be recognized and attract new high school soccer officials, he added.
An obvious benefit is being able to stay involved in a sport activity that one enjoys. Individuals can become great officials even though they did not perform well as an athlete in that sport. Enjoyment results from seeing outstanding plays, teamwork and overall player and team improvement, and knowing that you are helping them to happen.
Another benefit, Manjone said is to provide a service to the community as a sport official. Some officials start out as youth referees who serve as volunteers because their children are playing and officials are needed.
“Obviously, high schools are in even more need of officials so becoming an official will benefit the youth of your community and the local schools,” he said.
Another benefit Manjone cites is improved fitness. Refereeing as a soccer, basketball or football official requires the official to be healthy and fit, and increased fitness occurs while officiating. Officials may run as much as 5 miles during a high school soccer game, he said.
Extra income is always a plus of officiating. High school varsity soccer referees in Alabama get $55 a game as the Center Referee and $45 a game as the Assistant Referees. In addition, each referee gets $8 for travel. In contrast, major college referees now get thousands of dollars for officiating a game.
Finally, as referees get more experienced, travel opportunities become a benefit. Manjone said he was often paid to travel around the world to officiate including baseball and soccer. The same referee that mentioned the gray hair at the association meetings has also gotten to officiate and participate in athletic activities in 18 different states and seven different countries.
“Almost like getting paid to go on vacation,” he said. “And even getting to take part in some highly competitive athletic events along the way.”
To become a high school official in any high school sport, contact Mark Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 334-263-6995.
- Dr. Joe Manjone has served as president of Waldorf University from 2009-2011 and as Columbia Southern University provost. He is a current member and former chair of the National Federation Soccer Rules Committee.