FORT DODGE, Ia. — Inmates at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility have a nickname for correctional officer Jim Bice.
They know that, outside the prison walls, Bice is an Iowa high school basketball official. He watches the inmates’ pick-up basketball games in the prison yard, and he says they often ask him for help on foul calls.
Some, though, already know the rules pretty well.
“They have a lot of potential,” Bice said.
So much, in fact, that Bice has started recruiting inmates to become high school basketball officials when they exit prison. He’s only talked to a few so far, he said.
“Non-violent offenders who made poor choices in tough environments as young men,” Bice, a basketball official since 1991, said of the inmates he’s taught.
Bice knows first-hand: They can find work officiating boys and girls basketball in Iowa. Lots of it.
According to Iowa High School Athletic Association data, Iowa had 1,493 registered boys’ basketball officials in 2006-07. Ten years later, in 2016-17, that number had dwindled to 963. And about 45 percent of those still officiating games were 50 or older.
This trend has a significant impact on high school athletics as a whole. Athletic directors don’t schedule games unless they’ve got officials in line.
You do the math: Fewer officials means games could be canceled at the varsity and, especially, sub-varsity levels.
“It seems to get harder (to staff games) every year,” said Joel Oswald, a central Iowa official since 1998 and one of the state’s main official assignors. “We’re trending in the wrong direction.”
This problem isn’t limited to Iowa, either.