It’s a national crisis, according to Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the National Federation of High Schools.
“It” is the shortage of officials to work high-school games. The problem is worse because of the impacts of coronavirus. Adam Laubert, former operations director for Herd of Zebras, a group that tries to find and train prospective officials, said some game officials don’t want to retire.
A basketball official in semi-retirement said fan abuse is a problem. But he thought another issue was lack of qualifications to work varsity-level games which, he thinks, contributes to an often-cited reason for a lack of officials – fan abuse.
A retired CHSAA baseball official blamed three things — lack of involvement by the Colorado High School Activities Association, a lack of recruiting and retention efforts and low pay.
Whatever the reason, a lack of game officials was a problem even before the pandemic and before certain officials didn’t want to hang up their whistles. Niehoff said in some cases, games have had to be moved and sports programs canceled.
“We need more people to consider officiating high-school sports,” Niehoff said in a video presentation. “Parents need to appreciate the time and sacrifice and devotion that officials make to ensure high-school sports are available to our nation’s youth.”
Pay and travel time
One issue is the rate of pay. Salaries for the state’s officials depend on the sport. In baseball and basketball, each member of a two- or three-person crew earns $62.42 per game. In field hockey, the fee is $58.26 for each of the two officials. In volleyball, the fee is $50.98 for each of the two varsity-level officials and $39.02 per official for a junior-varsity or “C” team match.
In Texas, high-school football officials are paid $105 to $185 per game, depending on attendance and travel distance. Baseball umpires there earned $85 in travel stipends for the first game and $70 for subsequent games in 2019. In Colorado, the travel stipend increases to $10 per game next year.
According to retired CHSAA umpire Dan Weikle, who worked state-level playoff games during many of his 46 years as a certified baseball official, the pay for an umpire in 1964 was $10 per game.
“If you extrapolate that out, that’s $88 today,” he said. “We get paid $62. The pay hasn’t kept up with inflation. In 1975, when I started, the pay waas $25 ($118 in today’s dollars).”
Ray Garza is a former basketball player, former basketball coach and a basketball official in transition. He’s not signed up to work games this season but keeps his referee togs at Riverdale Ridge High School just in case.
His issue with pay came in two parts – travel time and the hour before varsity-level games. In the case of a varsity level basketball game, Garza had to be in the gym an hour before scheduled tipoff time. Then there’s the time it takes to get to a gym. In some cases, thanks to traffic, it can take an hour.
Garza’s problem isn’t necessarily with the travel time. It’s the hour before the game begins that’s unpaid
“What job asks that?” Garza said. “If they could build in something, $10 for gas would be a step. Basketball officials get $48 but no pregame fee.”
Game officials are independent contractors; by law, they cannot form a union. Weikle said state’s schools pay CHSAA a fee, part of which goes toward running officials’ associations.
“It’s not in CHSAA’s best interests to give us a raise,” Weikle said. “They want to make officials’ pay cost-effective for all the schools.”
Recruiting and retention
At one time, CHSAA offered training to prospective officials. That’s not the case anymore. Weinkle said even an appearance at a high-school career day would help.
Weikle said CHSAA was “good to him” during the time he served as an official.
“I don’t have an ax to grind. The system worked for me. I worked state championships in football, basketball and baseball,” Wrinkle said. “CHSAA does nothing to support high-school athletic officials. They leave it to the sports officials’ jurisdictions. CHSAA has a direct connection to the schools, which could do more to get the word out needing more officials. That could pave the way for us to get into the high schools. We could hit as many kids as we could and may get 12 or 15 to stick.”
Representatives from CHSAA could not be reached for comment by press time.
Dealing with abuse
Public address announcers read a statement from the Colorado High School Activities Association that encourages proper ways to support the players and game officials. Niehoff agreed during her video presentation.
“We need players, coaches, parents and other fans to be respectful to ensure that those individuals who are currently officiating continue to do so,” Niehoff said. “Cheer positively for the student-athlete and not criticize the officials. The profession is tougher than we might think.”
Garza took it a step farther.
“Some officials need to be at the middle-school level. But we have such a shortage of officials,” he said. “Some just aren’t ready for the high school level. It’s tough officiating. And if you’re not prepared, it causes frustration among the spectators. Some can’t keep up with the pace. We need bodies to fill the void. But some aren’t working to be better at their craft.”
Weikle said his problem wasn’t with high-school fans and coaches. His issue was with summer league organizations.
“CHSAA handles the coaches well,” he said. “The summer leagues and organizations treat the spectators and parents as clients. And as they say, the customer is always right. If the organization comes down on a parent, they are going to say, ‘I’ll take my kid and play somewhere else.’ There is no support of umpires.”
Garza said an official’s demeanor can be a help to curb fan abuse. It can also add to it.
“If an official becomes frustrated at every word mentioned to them, it frustrates the fans, the coaches. When the official gets rattled, options don’t exist,” he said. “It breaks my heart to see an unqualified official working at levels where he’s not qualified.”
Then there’s the matter of appearance.
“You get paid to do this,” Garza said. “Your presence speaks volumes to spectators. It’s just like being a coach. The kids come to practice every day because they want to be better,” Garza said.
Weikle parks his car as far away from the main parking area as he can, and he encourages his crew members to do the same thing.
“I don’t talk to spectators,” Weikle said. “Marc Johnson (the baseball coach at Cherry Creek High School) talks to me and does so with respect. I respect him. He and I are friends. If a coach comes on the field yelling at an umpire, that opens the door.”
Garza said some officials are using that profession to pay their bills. He knows of one official who works as many as eight games a day and works seven days a week.
“You need time off for your body to reset and for a better mindset,” Garza said. “The pay is worth extra money to spend on your family or on the gas to get you to a game. You don’t want to lose money. You want to be the best possible official you can be and make sure you’re not check-marking a game.”
“When I step on a field, I get paid as much as Joe Schmo who looks like an unmade bed,” Weikle said. “Those guys are asking for trouble. It shows he wasn’t thinking about baseball until he walked on the field.
“I tell officials there are three things you can control .. the way you dress, your actions on the field and your hustle,” he continued. “If you do those three things, coaches will like you.”
Time was when sports had clearly defined seasons. These days, teams practice all year, particularly in warmer climates and their games need officials. Cities have various levels of youth and adult leagues, and those require officials, too. In some cases, umpires can make $75 per game from municipal leagues. High-school umpires in Colorado don’t make that much. Some municipal officials make more than Garza makes as a teacher.
“No school can match that,” Garza said. “We still have good officials. We just don’t have enough to cover the amount of organizations that have games outside of the normal seasons.”
The next generation
This spring, the head of the state’s soccer officials wanted to see more high-school players become officials.
“I want to encourage high-school players to become referees so they understand the rules of the game,” CHSSO President Ken Hehr told CHSAA’s soccer committee in March. “If they take the course, that helps the referees on the field because the players aren’t yelling about something they don’t know about. It’s a great way to educate the student-athlete and help us out.”
Weikle said it was a ‘fallacy” that someone needed to be a good athlete to be a good official.
“I was a horrible baseball player,” said Weikle, who umpired state championship baseball games during his time with CHSAA. “We recruited guys at summer tournaments. Many are at the top levels of high-school ball. Two (Cory Blazer, a Pomona High School graduate, and Chris Guccione, who worked the World Series two years ago) are in the majors. They did their umpiring with me.”
Laubert continued Hehr’s approach through Herd of Zebras.
“We’ve got accountability,” Laubert said in April. “We’ve never had to cancel or postpone a game. We had a lot of issues about putting new guys into the fire. I didn’t receive one complaint.”
In some cases, younger, less experienced officials have been recruited as emergency varsity-level replacements.
“I’ve got four kids at Mountain Range (Laubert is an assistant coach for the Mustangs’ football team). We gave them the training, and they did a phenomenal job,” Laubert said. “The coaches said they were the best refs they’d ever had. They can be a resource no one has tapped into. We’d like to find more kids like this. If you find the right high-school kid, he’ll impress you.”
“But if you don’t do this (training and recruiting) year after year, they lose enthusiasm,” Weikle said. “You need a dedicated group to keep hammering away and to be there year in and year out.”
Garza leaves his home for his teaching job at Riverdale Ridge at 6:45 in the morning when most of his family is asleep. If he’s officiating, he often won’t make it home until at least 8:30 p.m., when most of his family is asleep.
“I love doing it. I coached basketball for years, and I missed it,” Garza said. “As a former athlete and coach, it’s fun to walk into a gym. The band is playing. It makes my blood boil. It makes me want to be the best officials on the court that I can be.
“But understand. It messes with your mind. We need self-care. Stress levels can steer you in the wrong direction.”
“Every person has a role to play to ensure the success of high-school sports,” Niehoff said. “We must work together to ensure the games continue to be available to the more than 8 million participants nationwide.”
“The way an official handles himself … You see little of that (fan abuse of game officials) happening,” Garza said.
“I wanted to do a good job,” Weikle said. “I do it for the kids, yes. The kids are the beneficiaries of my work ethic. Guys my age (Weikle is 67)? No one is going to replace my generation when I retire.Guys who are in their 30s, 40s, 50s? There aren’t that many. It’s not going to be a problem in a year. In five years, it’s going to be a huge problem.”