POLK COUNTY — For some fans, they’re a savior, someone to bail out a team in a tight spot.
For others, they’re a villain, someone who deserves blame in a loss.
They are the referees — and across Oregon, their numbers are continuing to dwindle.
“We have about 3,300 officials, which is about 10 percent short of where we want to be,” Jack Folliard, Oregon Athletic Officials Association executive director said. “That’s about 300 to 400 short spread out across all seven sports that we service. All (sports) are down in numbers over the last several years.”
Oregon has about 1,100 basketball referees, Folliard said. Any shortage puts referees in a difficult spot.
“I might already be reaching panic mode,” Folliard said. “There will always be enough varsity officials. But in some cases, in some associations, we may not be able to staff a junior varsity or freshmen game. That’s where the real issue is going to be — making sure all the games can be covered.”
For now, many referees work multiple games in a night. But the larger issue persists: Finding a solution to stop the bleeding isn’t simple.
When Folliard began officiating in the 1970s, Oregon’s referee situation looked far different.
“A lot of the referees back then were teachers and educators,” Folliard said. “It was a way for them to be more connected to students. As their responsibilities at schools have increased, we have fewer educators.”
Today, the situation is much more unsteady.
Salem Basketball Officials Commissioner Steve Bulen said the association, which covers Polk County, has 160 basketball referees, 10 to 15 short, but drawing in new referees isn’t easy.
“The National Federation of State High School Associations put out a report and the top reason why refs quit was career movement,” Bulen said. “Second on the list was poor sportsmanship by fans and participants alike. That’s the one that I think is a real problem.”
The OAOA does have procedures in place to deal with fans and emphasizes getting school management involved. But the verbal abuse can be a real turnoff.
“People don’t like to get yelled or screamed at,” Bulen said. “People don’t even consider you as a human sometimes. You’re just an object out there, which is sad.”
Other barriers include lower-than-expected pay and difficult career advancement.
“You have to buy uniforms, go to meetings, work at home studying the rules, etc.,” Folliard said. “I think people quickly understand how complicated the rules are and how difficult it is to make snap judgments in an activity that is happening very, very fast.”
Schedules can also be a major hurdle to attracting new referees.
New referees generally start with freshmen and junior varsity games to gain experience and receive feedback. Those games often start at 5:30 p.m.
“A lot of people have to work in the afternoons,” Folliard said. “It’s tough for people with that 9-to-5 job to start officiating at any location, especially in spots where traffic is more difficult.”
Despite a decrease in numbers, those who do remain find it to be a rewarding experience, Bulen said.
“I think it becomes a lifeblood for them,” Bulen said. “The adrenaline starts flowing. I had officials compare getting assignments to Christmas morning.”
Bulen said he’s seen many referee crews become lifelong friends.
While the benefits can last a lifetime, the OAOA is facing a struggle to bring in new referees. But Folliard is hoping potential referees aren’t scared away.
“It takes a special kind of person to be a ref,” Folliard said. “You’re helping out the kids and doing a service to the community, because it’s just recess without refs.”