There is a shortage of officials in every sport in high school sports, and the problem is likely only to get worse.
It’s simply a matter of time.
While moderating a panel of officials who spoke to a gathering of high school coaches and athletes last Friday at Skyview, Dave Andrew of the Lower Columbia Umpires Association for baseball and softball explained it this way.
“My association, the Lower Columbia Softball Umpires, had 21 certified members last spring,” Andrew said. “I’m 68 years old. I’m no kid. Of those 21, there are nine who are older than me. … On the other (end of) the spectrum, our youngest official is 35 years old. So do the math or look at that list and say what’s the Lower Columbia Association for softball going to look like in five years, or in 10 years.”
Associations for officials in other sports can share similar numbers.
There was a common theme among the officials who spoke last Friday. Most are former athletes who got involved in officiating to stay connected to the sport they love.
Knowing that, Neil Anderson, who officiates basketball and soccer, is always on the lookout for future officials when he works a game. He had that thought when he worked a recent high school soccer match.
“You’re talking 22 phenomenal women athletes, and with the subs, you’ve got close 30 athletes who could be working earning money on a Saturday officiating (youth) soccer,” Anderson said. “And you start asking them ‘Why are you not doing it? You could easily earn $150.’ And their answer always is ‘I don’t want to get yelled at.’ ”
And therein lies the problem. As the number of officials is on the decline, it is not coincidental that the amount of verbal abuse being rained on those officials who remain is on the rise.
I remember talking to Mick Hoffman, executive director for the WIAA, during the depth of the pandemic when no sports were being played.
He expressed a hope that people would gain some perspective over what was lost, then remember what is most important when the games return. And that new perspective would allow athletes to treat their rivals with more respect, and fans would treat officials with more respect.
Well, when games returned, that hope quickly evaporated. Hoffman noted last Friday that ejections are up about one-third over pre-pandemic numbers.
And the behavior from the stands, which is much more difficult to police, has been even worse. And that behavior has consequences.
Carlos Butler, who officiates basketball and baseball, noted that last spring, because of shortage of umpires, that most freshman games in the area were being worked by a one umpire.
That would be a challenge for an experienced umpire. But often lower-level games are worked by less experienced umpires.
“Baseball is getting better now,” Butler said. “Kids are throwing harder. The play is a lot faster now. And we’ve got these young guys and putting them on a lower-level game. Then they are getting berated by some parent or somebody, and they’re just trying to learn.”
The problem gets even worse down at the youth level.
“And we talk about the youth sports,” Andrew said. “I believe greatly that’s the greatest tool for training officials. And it’s our worst entrance for keeping officials.”
Most journalists have a soft spot in our hearts for the officials. We both love sports. We both get excited for the big game. And we both get accused of not being impartial by people who are wildly partial.
I’m often on the sidelines listening to angry fans up in the stands scream venom at the officials, sometimes even after the game has ended. I’ve even heard stories of officials being pursued in the parking lot.
What is the objective of these angry fans? What do they hope to achieve?
The only logical outcome of screaming at an official is to cause that official to stop officiating.
But here’s the thing. You don’t want a bad official to quit. You want a bad official to become a better official.
Because if an official quits, there is not a line of people waiting to be their replacements. And if there are no officials, there are no games.
This is an idea that must be embraced at the lowest levels of youth sports and nurtured all the way through the high school level.
“If you are involved in youth sports out there, either as coach or a parent, it starts with you,” Andrew said.
Because if it doesn’t, it could very well end with you.
Tim Martinez is the assistant sports editor/preps coordinator for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4538, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his Twitter handle @360TMart.