A shortage of officials working high school games is getting serious, so maybe it's time for you to get involved

The next time you’re tempted to let loose on an official or referee at your kid’s high school game, make it count.

Because not long from now, there may be no one to yell at.

Alarmist? Maybe. Far from the truth? Not very.

The reality, however, is that the number of officials working high school sports across this area, the state and the country is in sharp decline. It’s a trend rooted in several factors but no matter where it’s rooted, there’s no denying the need to change it.

A recent series in the Journal News of downstate brought the trend to light, and it’s not pretty. The participation numbers for high school athletes continues to rise, but the number of officials is declining to the point where in some areas of New York, modified and junior varsity officials are being fast-tracked to the varsity level.

A little more than 10 years ago, I voiced interest in officiating area lacrosse games. Because of scheduling conflicts, I didn’t attend a single class, workshop or training session. Never even took a written test about the rules.

But when the season started, I was e-mailed game assignments at the modified level and I worked five or six games that season, including one solo. And no, the parents on one particular side showed no mercy for missed calls.

On the one hand, it’s thrilling to see more and more kids taking part in school sports. It’s a fantastic environment to learn how effective teamwork is, and those are lessons carried throughout life. But when the National Federation of State High School Associations initiates an emergency recruitment plan for officials, it’s time to take notice.

First, we need to understand why there are fewer officials. According to the Journal News, near the top of the list is the culture of abuse aimed at officials from parents and coaches. Too, the growth of travel and club teams in the off-seasons, some of which pay more, is pulling officials away.

According to the NFSHSA, two of every 10 officials return for their third year of officiating. This has a lot to do with the abuse factor, which is shameful on behalf of coaches and parents who can’t seem to lower the throttle on their competitive motor.

Other factors include the focus of young people on families and careers and a pay scale that some say doesn’t make it worth the time and effort to be away from family.

In March, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association ran a full-page ad in its winter sports state tournament program that put fans on notice about the shortage of officials. And if you think this is a case of making a mountain of a molehill, the Journal News reported that there were no less than half a dozen modified sporting events last fall in which no officials were available to work. Teams had the choice of playing without an official, or rescheduling.

At its core, athletics exist at the high school level as part of the educational experience. And in many ways, officials who work the games are teachers as much as coaches are.

But unless we’re able to encourage more people to become officials, the integrity and value of the games is in jeopardy. 

So let’s make this solution easy: If you’re a wound-up coach or parent who is among the quick to blow a gasket, find a way to seal yourself. It’s great that you’re there to support the athletes, but if you’re driving away a necessary component of the game, you’re not helping the game move forward.

Second, get involved. Contact the Geneva Baseball Umpires Association or Rochester District Umpires Association. Look up the Wayne-Finger Lakes ASA Umpires page for softball, the Genesee Valley Lacrosse Officials Association, the Finger Lakes Football Officials Association, the Rochester Chapter of Certified Football Officials, or Board 60, the local organization for basketball officials. If the sport you’d love to officiate isn’t listed here, drop me an e-mail and I’ll find out who you need to contact.

Getting involved as a high school sports official is a great way to give back to the sport you perhaps played. And increasing the number of officials also will increase the quality of officiating and make everyone happier.

Especially those of you who already know more than the refs.

Chavez is sports editor at the Daily Messenger. Contact me at rchavez@messengerpostmedia.com or follow me @MPN_bchavez