Referee shortage impacts area sports
ALBANY – There was a time not long ago when Tuesdays and Fridays were the only night of the week to take in a high school basketball game. Now, however, games are being played practically every day of the week. The reason is that there aren’t enough referees to do the work.
“The number one reason for a lack of officials is unfortunately the behavior of spectators,” said Jeff Dollar, President of Board 36 of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials (IAABO).
Many referees opted out during the pandemic and never returned, Dollar explained. In addition, the recruitment of young officials has been a challenge, and on top of that, the abuse of sports officials has been on the rise.
“Yes, we run across issues with coaches and players,” Mike Sardella, a basketball referee for more than 20 years, said. “But they have someone to answer to, an athletic director, or the players have a coach to answer to. A fan doesn’t necessarily have anyone to be held accountable from.”
There are numbers to back up the anecdotes and observations. A recent survey conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials found that nearly 70% of them believe sportsmanship is getting worse.
More than 50% said at some point they have feared for their safety.
“It hasn’t gotten to that point for me,” according to Rhian Cleare, a referee for about 10 years who has moved up to the college level, “I know some of my very good friends and good officials have had some experiences where things have gotten physical or there have been verbal threats and so it can get pretty escalated at times.”
Which means perception and realty have become one and the same. If there aren’t enough officials to blow the whistle, many fear it could lead to blown opportunities for many hoop lovers.
“God forbid this happens,” said Dollar. “We’ll get to a place where schools are not going to be able to offer these activities for their kids because without the officials, you’re unable to participate in the game.”
“I think that that’s the only road we would go down if we can’t continue to get new officials and get younger officials,” Sardella said.
For the scores of men and women who give up their time and talent, who suit up, lace up, and put up with abuse and beratement on any given night of the week, there are rewards for being a sports official.
“I wouldn’t have done this for so long, honestly, if it was overly negative,” Dollar, now in his 27th year of officiating, said. “It’s been an extremely positive experience for me.”
Unfortunately, the competitive environment that typically thrives in high school gymnasiums every fall and winter is often overshadowed by the unsporting behavior, to a point where 12% of the officials recently surveyed nationwide say they have been physically assaulted.
In addition, 79% of the officials who remain on the job are receiving more assignments, and 12% of them say they’re burned out.
“Even though there are several negatives, there are a lot of positives that come from this,” Sardella said. “I think it’s important to stress that to try to look to get more people involved in it.”
“In my younger 20s, I did a lot of men’s leagues, and I was approached by an official and from there (I became a referee) and I fell in love with it,” Cleare said.
Sports official organizations need more young recruits like Cleare to get involved. And those efforts, although challenging, are already underway.
“The coaching community is probably a wonderful resource for us,” Dollar said. “It’s their players, their former players that make great officials, and we continue to need their help.”
It’s not just basketball that needs sports officials. All sports are in dire need of an infusion of young blood.
MORE: How to become a referee