It’s not new information that the number of sports officials in Oregon is declining.
And that number is continuing to grow.
The question is: What can be done about this issue so it doesn’t begin to drastically affect sports teams across the nation and in Polk County?
Officials are hanging up their black-and-white striped shirts and their whistles and walking away.
Across a nine-year span from 2010-11 to 2018-19, the number of baseball and softball officials has dropped 25 percent in each sport. Basketball has seen a 22 percent drop in officials, and wrestling saw a 21 percent drop. The number of football officials has suffered a 20 percent decrease.
“There’s no specific answer,” said Ken Woods, a Dallas City Councilor and former football referee. “I just retired last year after 40 years with Oregon State Activities Association. In those 40 years, I did high school, college and I was a commissioner for 14 of those years for high school, so I kind of saw all angles.”
In exit interviews done by the OSAA a few years back, 49.8 percent of exiting officials stated they didn’t have the time anymore with their day job, or that it was family-related.
Most games begin during the week at 4 p.m. and trickle into the evening. Trying to hold down a full-time day job with a side-job of officiating is challenging.
Officials often work several games per week, which keeps them away from their families for extended amounts of time.
“Another facet of this issue is there are no young men and women stepping up to replace the veteran officials who are now retiring,” said Jack Folliard, executive director of the Oregon Athletic Officials Association.
“The bucket is getting empty, and it’s not filling up.”
It’s common for an official to leave after a year or two, Folliard said.
“They’re not enthralled about getting yelled at by parents and fans.”
Which leads to a third part of this issue: the abuse officials receive from parents, coaches and fans.
Woods said it’s especially bad at the youth level.
“It used to be fun to officiate,” he said. “But more and more, it’s the parents at the youth level that go berserk.”
To echo Folliard, “We see a lot of officials in their third or fourth year not coming back, maybe their fifth year not coming back. It does get a little tiresome getting yelled at all the time,” Woods said.
He’s even had parents follow him out to his car after a game.
“I had a (football) game once, varsity game, and early in the game there was a cameraman along the sidelines, and we let him stay there, and pretty soon he yells out, ‘I’m gonna kill you,’” Woods said. “So I stopped the game, beckoned the athletic director over and I said, ‘I want him removed because he just threatened to kill us.’
“After the game, us officials met in the middle of the field, and I said, ‘Take your whistles off, put them in your hand, and when we get to the fence we’re gonna jog to the locker rooms.’ And he was still there.”
A cop had to escort the officials out of the locker rooms to their cars.
Now, Woods said there’s a report officials have to fill out with the OSAA in those kinds of circumstances.
“And guys are saying, ‘I don’t want to put up with this crap; I have better things to do,’” Woods said.
In a survey done by the National Officiating Survey in 2017 — with more than 17,000 officials from all levels and sports participating — officials stated that 39.26 percent of parents and 29.46 percent of coaches cause the most problems in sportsmanship.
In the same survey, more than 50 percent of officials stated that sportsmanship is getting worse, and more than half believe that coaches are responsible for improving sportsmanship.
Underlying all of this is the fact that officials don’t get paid well.
“We don’t do it for the money, because the money’s not the best,” Woods said.
On a local level, Dallas High School athletic director Tim Larson said he’s seen this problem affect DHS a little bit, with having to move games around here and there.
He is working hard to make sure poor sportsmanship isn’t the reason officials don’t want to come back to DHS.
“Every event program we produce, there will be a one-page document outlining sportsmanship responsibilities, and we will be holding everyone accountable,” Larson said. “The Dallas community has a great sportsmanship reputation, and we will keep it that way. We encourage fans to help each other out and not make it about the official, yet making it about cheering on our athletes, congratulating them on their efforts.
“In addition, when athletes are registered for a sport at Dallas, parents and athletes are required to read and sign, acknowledging the expectation for spectator and athlete conduct.”
Retiring officials, no one to replace them, and poor sportsmanship are just some of the reasons why the number of officials is declining.
What can be done?
“If I had an answer, we wouldn’t be here talking,” Folliard said.
“We need to educate everyone a little better,” he said. “These (officials) are doctors and welders and teachers taking time out of their week to … go to games.”
And ultimately, Woods said, “We do make mistakes; you have to remember that.”
Training to become an official is no cake walk.
“We put a lot of time in to train,” Woods said. “We need to know the mechanics of how to cover the play, we need to know the rules and how to apply the rules in each situation.”
Each incoming official must take a test at the end of his or her training, and has three chances to score a certain percentage. Each sport has specific guidelines on what is an appropriate score for the official to meet before being allowed to officiate a game. For football, it’s 75 percent.
“The bottom line is, we need officials,” Folliard said. “We’re desperate.”
Becoming an official isn’t a hard process, and the OAOA is willing to help out those who are interested, Folliard said. He said the cost to become an official be a deterrent for some.
“Registration fees are anywhere from $50 to $60,” he said. “And that covers becoming registered with the OSAA and the rule books.”
The uniforms can cost up to $120.
“Knowledge of the sport an official is wanting to get into is helpful, and most often, you will see officials officiating sports that they either loved or played,” Folliard said.
But knowledge of a sport can always be learned during training, he added.
“For those who didn’t play sports much, officiating could be a chance to directly participate, earn money and could possibly lead to collegiate or even professional involvement,” Folliard said.
Those who are interested can visit newofficials.org. All they have to do is enter their name, location and sport they’re interested in, and they’ll be contacted by a local association.