A shrinking pool of high school referees and officials is threatening to reshape a staple of the American culture — the afternoon and weekend interscholastic contests — and New York’s fields and courts are feeling the impact, according to national and New York experts.
So alarming is the number of dwindling officials that the leading U.S. agency overseeing high school sports has put out an emergency recruitment effort to reverse the trend. New York’s sister agency followed suit with a full page ad.
The key culprits for the decline include:
- the culture of abuse aimed at officials across all sports.
- the aging of the current crop of officials that many say is a harbinger of a looming disaster.
- the explosion of travel and club teams and games that compete for high school officials’ time.
- a pay scale that some say should be increased dramatically.
- a dramatic shift in time constraints on younger men and women who used to gravitate to the avocation.
Perhaps no statistic underscored the situation more than this one: An average of only two of every 10 officials return for their third year of officiating, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“The issue is twofold. First, we must find ways to recruit more men and women to become involved in officiating high school sports. Second, we have to address issues that are causing these individuals to discontinue their service as contest officials,” according to the association’s article on its website, published April 6.
As part of the national trend, the Hudson Valley has been experiencing a brain drain of sorts in a variety of sports. Officials who oversee sports in Sections 1 (Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Dutchess counties) and 9 (Dutchess, Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties) are in such short supply for varsity games that league officials are pulling refs from junior varsity, freshman and middle school games.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association ran a full-page ad in its winter sports state tournament program in March. But the association fears it will not be enough and, from Poughkeepsie to Bronxville, coaches, athletic directors and league officials worry about the impending crisis.
- In the last 15 years, Section 1 saw the number of kids playing sports rise from 55,000 to 71,000; and the number of teams jump from 3,268 to 3,643.
- In the same period, Section 9 saw its ranks increase from nearly 27,000 to 31,500 kids; and the number of teams rose from 1,564 to 1,824.
- In the last two years alone, the number of officials working for the NYSPHSAA dropped by 160 to 2,296.
- Refs can make as much as $1,000 a week doing multiple games when officiating non-scholastic travel athletics, with one report claiming several officials handling multiple sports earned over $70,000 per year.
- Since 1971-72, the number of high school athletes nationally has doubled, from 4 million to 8 million.
“The shortage is something we discuss constantly among ourselves,” said Scott Caruthers, a Poughkeepsie resident and longtime soccer, baseball and lacrosse official for Sections 1 and 9. “We’ve put posters up, contacted schools, and I’ll bring it up to people in conversation … The payment is pretty good, but we still have a hard time getting people.”
“We’ve had issues with soccer since girls were moved to fall. Sometimes it’s field hockey and girls lacrosse and boys modified lacrosse but the biggest one is soccer,” she said.
The veteran officials who remain are aging. Some are having trouble keeping up with the speed of the game, coaches and athletic directors note. What used to be a steady incoming of younger officials is now the exception, not the rule.
“I noticed a decline about five or six years ago, when a lot of our guys became old and retired. But there hadn’t been an influx of young guys coming in, going way back,” said Jim Arneo, president of the Mid-Hudson Valley Baseball Umpires Association. “We have guys in their 70s and two in their 80s. We have 10 guys 60 and older.”
Those who remain in the field are aging out, and the younger candidates are no longer stepping up to the plate as in past years.
“We’re hurting,” said Simon Kaufman, an octogenarian referee from Dutchess County. “A lot of us old folks are getting out, or will be soon, and we’re not getting enough young people in. If this continues, it’ll be a big problem.”
“Some officials are getting older. They may want to do modified but they have to do varsity,” said Todd Nelson, assistant director of the NYSPHSAA, referring to some older officials not being able to keep up with the speed of varsity games.
While the pay and time constraints contribute to the decline, the stories of abuse or near physical confrontation at games stand apart.
Terry Walsh, a 34-year-year veteran of officiating in Dutchess County, recalls the story when a varsity boys coach went after the referees after a game. He was kicking the door of the locker room and, when Walsh opened the door, the coach grabbed him and slammed him against a wall before players intervened.
“Parents have gone through the roof as far as the level of passion for sports,” he said. “Some of the comments coming from them are awful.”
Mike Crocco, the John Jay-East Fishkill softball coach, said he doubts he could officiate for that reason.
“There would be plays that I miss and I don’t want 20 people yelling at me because of it,” he said. “The negative energy could affect you and make you say, ‘Even for $100, is it worth it?’”
Parents also see what is happening.
“It’s definitely troubling,” said Larry Petersen, the father of Wappingers girls lacrosse player Megan Petersen. “If that keeps up, it’s going to come at the expense of the kids and the communities.”
Barry Mano, founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials, said officiating also used to be fun, and that is a strong reason why new blood doesn’t join and older blood eventually gives up.
“We have got to control the way sports officials are treated and respected. We have to turn the train around and they have to be fully valued and respected. We’ve got to deliver psychic income.”