MOREHEAD CITY — There is a growing shortage in high school officials, and the reasons for it are complex.
The truth is, prep athletic contests can’t be played without officials. And while there is no shortage of reasons officials do what they do, the obstacles they face are offsetting the love of the game that inspired them.
Roy Turner, Regional Supervisor of Officials at Eastern Basketball Officials Association, has seen the effects of those obstacles firsthand.
“My biggest challenge is recruiting and retaining young talent,” Turner said. “And I don’t think it’s about the money. I think, instead, it’s the format of the game and the time constraints that come with that, as well as the toxic culture from the schools.”
The retired official and former executive director for the N.C. Athletic Administrators’ Association shares that opinion with a number of officials and umpires still in the field, such as Coastal Athletic Association Regional Supervisor Michael Nye, 46, and former professional baseball umpire and current Division I college baseball official Jimmy Paylor, 51, a Harkers Island native now living in Morehead City.
“This a conversation we have quite a bit in the locker rooms,” Paylor said. “I think a large part of it is the toxic culture at the ball parks and gymnasiums. Along with the pay, that’s why there has been a decline. This job comes with an earful, and that’s a problem.”
The N.C. High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) has taken measurable strides in changing the culture associated with prep sports, but the shortage in officials is not getting better, which will inevitably lead to wholesale changes at the school level.
“We’re not getting the influx of young officials, which means everyone’s officiating base is aging,” NCHSAA Supervisor of Officials Mark Dreibelbis said. “That’s always a concern. If we don’t have officials, we don’t have games. That’s the simple math. One plus one will always equal two.”
“It all comes down to pay.”
Officials are responsible for their own equipment, their gas and time spent in travel. Pay ranges from between $51 (volleyball and swimming) to $76 (football) for a contest, both increases from previous years. Most recently, officials covering doubleheader basketball games saw an increase in pay from $91 to $100.
However, there has been little correlation between an overall increase in pay and recruitment of officials. Simply put, marginal raises have done little to attract new talent or retain relative newcomers. According to a survey held by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), only 2-of-10 rookie officials return for their third year on the job.
As of 2018, the NCHSAA reported it had seen an 11-percent drop in officials, but that trend has since slightly reversed.
“Last year, we teamed up with the NFHS and actually led the nation percentage-wise in the recruitment of new officials,” Dreibelbis said. “But we’re not blowing our chest out too much. See, if I gain a soccer official or I gain a volleyball official, and I lose an official who does football, basketball and baseball, I’m down two officials. So, all things are relative.”
New officials face a rigorous introductory education, followed by two four-hour scrimmage sessions before they can take the court or field. Those rules and policies are revisited through annual classes, in addition to a state clinic led by Dreibelbis. Often, those new recruits are ex-players themselves.
“Some younger officials have started coming out,” Paylor said. “The best ones usually are ex-players who have some instinct for the game already. And usually, no matter the sport they played, they can learn to officiate others pretty easily.”
The state has taken measures to attract new officials by offsetting the cost with waiving first-year fees.
“We’re trying to give some incentives to new officials,” Dreibelbis said. “When you first get started, you have to buy your equipment, go to the clinics, there’s inherent expenses. We try to recognize that and work with young people to get their foot in the door.”
However, the root of the problem lies in the treatment of officials, something that doesn’t go unnoticed by prep athletes.
“I work with a lot of very bright student-athletes, kids who are leaders for their schools and their sports,” Dreibelbis said. “When I ask them if any have interest in becoming an official, they’re hesitant. They know what officials have to put up with and they don’t want any part of that. It’s heartbreaking.”
High school sports is no financial windfall for anybody on the ground – officials, coaches, athletic directors, etc. – nor is it a top reason officials pursue their career, but there is a clear difference between reimbursement between the youth and high school level and the college and pro ranks. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, high school officials average an annual $27,020 salary. The median salary for college officials can range from $36,788 (baseball) to $61,498 (football).
“It all comes down to pay as well,” Paylor said. “I work in college baseball, and the pay is crazy good. There’s no shortage at that level, because the money’s there. There are some young people getting into the field, but the problem is, they don’t want to go work a 13- to 15-year-old Babe Ruth game because they get $55-75 bucks for a nine-inning game. At the college level, you’re getting $700. So, they want to skip all that lower level stuff to jump right into the big leagues, but that’s not how it works.”
“We will no longer have Friday night lights.”
There was a time in high school sports when only two basketball games per night took place.
Those were a varsity boys contest and another for the jayvee team. Now there are four, including varsity games for the boys and girls teams and two additional jayvee contests. It has become customary for all four games to take place on the same night, with the first one (jayvee girls) beginning at 4 p.m. and the last one (varsity boys) usually beginning at 7:30 to 8 p.m.
The fact is, there are very few officials available at such an early start time, as many have primary jobs upon which their schedules hinge.
“If I work at Cherry Point and the game starts at 4 p.m., I have to take an hour leave from work to get there 45 minutes before the game,” Paylor said. “That’s simply not feasible for everyone.”
A swell in new sports and new teams have also hampered scheduling for officials. Before the shutdown of high school sports due to COVID-19, the state’s newest accredited sport – girls lacrosse – was experiencing a substantial shortage in officials. The shortage was felt strongest in the Triangle area, prompting action by the state organization on March 11 to make emergency changes, among them decreasing the number of officials needed for matches and scheduling double- and triple-headers to accommodate the lack of officials on other days.
The sudden growth of a new sport is not unprecedented. In the 1980s, the youth soccer boom resulted in a similar officials shortage.
“The first year we offered high school soccer in the state, we had 44 teams I believe,” Turner said. “The next year, that number jumped to about 140. There’s literally no way to have that many officials qualify and be prepared and ready to work. No one anticipated that growth.”
Turner’s Eastern Basketball Officials Association is no stranger to scheduling difficulties. The agency utilizes 170 officials for roughly 3,200 high school contests over the course of the year. He’s one of dozens of associations in the state that are left scrambling when anything deviates from the norm.
“We don’t have the extra breathing room,” Dreibelbis said. “When winter sports season comes and flu season hits, we don’t have the luxury of extra bodies to fill in the gaps. That’s the real difficulty, having to double up games and create doubleheaders and tripleheaders like we’ve had to do with the girls lacrosse games. We’re maintaining, but if you’re going to grow and develop, you can’t always be in maintenance mode.”
Extreme measures resulting from a shortage in officials won’t be limited to girls lacrosse in the near future. In other states, Friday night football games are already being distributed to other nights of the week to accommodate a limited number of officials.
“Sometime in the future, this is the reality if we don’t recruit and retain more officials,” Turner said. “We will no longer have (just) Friday night lights. There will be Wednesday night lights, Thursday night lights, Saturday afternoon lights. There’s no other way to provide officials for every game.”
“There’s only so much a grown man can take.”
There is no schedule perfect enough to shore up the deficiencies in common courtesy that is driving off prospective officials.
“Every time you put air in your whistle or don’t put air into your whistle, they’re going to call your name,” Turner said. “They’re going to question your ancestry, throw stuff at you, and someone may be waiting for you after the game.”
A visit to any high school sports contest will reveal the worst in any fan – profanity, threats and sometimes even physical violence. It’s a factor of the job that Coastal Athletic Association Michael Nye is all too familiar with.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years now, and the reason why officiating is on the decline is because of the toxic culture at the ball games,” he said. “Potential young officials are usually people who played the game, and they remember how parents and coaches acted towards the officials when they were still in school. They’re not signing up for that.”
The state requires sports like football to have a form of restraining device separating fans from the field, devices that range from a fence to a simple rope. In baseball and softball, the fans are a little closer, with the most vocal of the spectators camping out behind the backstop, a mere 20 feet from the ear of the umpire.
“My wife will ask me afterward, ‘Did you hear that guy in the stands?’” Paylor said. “I never hear them, not in the bleachers or the stands. I know they’re there and they’re jawing. But I just tone them out for some reason. Experience helps you drown it out. If you’re new, though, that is the loudest noise you hear out there. And that is definitely running young officials out.”
Basketball officials face the loudest abuse, with fans often a foot or two away from the court sideline. And while there has always been some degree of criticism directed at officials, the irreverence leveled at officials today has many of them exasperated.
“At some point, people are throwing up their hands and saying ‘This isn’t worth it anymore,’” Dreibelbis said. “And that breaks my heart, because I loved officiating. I loved being right on the front, officiating basketball where everyone was right on top of you and there was an inherent energy. But the negative energy and the profanity and the threats directed at our officials these days is so far out of control. It’s simply unacceptable.”
Additionally, nothing turns a fan into a rules expert faster than quick access to a rulebook on their smartphone. The advent of taking videos at games has also increased the level of scrutiny officials face.
“Mistakes happen at every level, from the pros down to youth sports,” Turner said. “But now there is social media shaming. If they catch a mistake on video, it’s posted online before the game is over.”
A 100-percent rate of correct calls is humanly impossible, leaving room for fans with a sharp eye to see their opportunity and profanely criticize an official.
“They think because they paid their dime, they can get a nickel’s worth of commentary,” Nye said. “No one leaves their home to be abused like that. Officials have to have a thick skin, but there’s only so much a grown person can take.”
Paylor worked 10 years in professional baseball, seeing that level of criticism and scrutiny at all levels.
“The higher level you go, the more professional you become, but there is certainly a higher level of scrutiny across the board these days,” he said. “I think if people at the high school level were getting paid more, they could listen to a lot more of that chatter.”
“The kids have stayed the exact same age.”
Gone are the days of slow, methodical basketball in high school gymnasiums.
Turner was there in 1979 when Dominique Wilkens and Alvis Rogers dominated at Washington High School, and he was present at Greensboro Coliseum in 2003 when LeBron James showcased his talents. Now, instead of top-tier athleticism being the exception, it’s the rule.
“People are doing unbelievably athletic things that you didn’t think were possible before,” Turner said. “Physically, the game is being played at a much faster rate. No one is walking the ball up and down the court anymore. Now they’re surveying interest in a high school basketball shot clock nationwide, which will only push the pace more and make things increasingly difficult for officials.”
The increase in athleticism has created an additional challenge for aging officials, who find that with each passing year, the disparity between their own vigor and that of the student-athletes.
“I started officiating in 1977 and have worked in the field for 40 years, Turner said. “The issue is, the kids have stayed the exact same age as they were when I started. That’s the reality of the situation.”
Subtleties in contact are also under increased review with each passing season. While sports divided cleanly by a net, such as volleyball or tennis, are not generally mired in minutiae of physical contact, those technicalities are the lifeblood of a football or basketball official’s nightly calls.
“You can take just about any sport and see that the closer people are together, the more subjective the performance becomes,” Turner noted.
A 17,000-person survey conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) in 2017, there are “more officials over the age of 60 than under 30.”
“The quicker we can get people in, the better.”
Ironically, the shortage in officials has flipped due to the shutdown of sports from COVID-19. No sports means no officials, which could compound the complications facing the industry.
“Now there’s a risk from this COVID-19 that older officials could literally walk away from it out of safety,” Turner said. “I have people right now who are in a position to teach the younger ones and share their experiences, their successes and their failures. In five years, I might not have that. The quicker we can get people in, the better.”
Dreibelbis also noted the complexity brought on by the coronavirus, while expressing equal concern for all workers in the state.
“This is a nationwide and worldwide thing,” Dreibelbis said. “I worry about the waitstaff at restaurants and the workers who are most affected by this. That includes our officials and umpires. I think whenever we do get back to playing, there’s not going to be a shortage in officials. Everyone is going to want to get games, and that’s a good thing.”
Turner added, “Athletics and sports will be part of our healing process on the backside of this event.”
“We’re all in this together.”
The NCHSAA has worked closely with schools and athletic administrators to implement policies that seek to attack the issues facing officials.
One plan of attack was appointing a game administrator for each contest. Usually an athletic director, a game administrator is there to aid officials in off-the-field or off-the-court issues. Additionally, schools are looking to their student-athlete leaders to curb criticism from the student section.
“We’re all in this together,” Dreibelbis said. “The good news is, we’re talking about it and identifying the problems. We’re going to keep working hard and working towards a solution. We’ve been very aggressive with sportsmanship and accountability issues. Players, coaches and administrators have succeeded in this.”
The NFHS launched a campaign last year to hamper unruly behavior by parents at sporting events with a video titled, “The Parent Seat,” an op-ed from Executive Director Karissa L. Niehoff and a letter from a 20-year veteran soccer official who walked away from the sport due to the verbal abuse.
“The question is, how do we convince the general public that this behavior is unacceptable,” Turner said. “We need passionate people at games, but there’s a level of respect and courtesy that is just not being abided by.”
“I do it for a love of the game.”
The decline in the industry aside, veteran officials are generally happy to fill their roles. There’s an inherent love of the game, particularly for those in the high school ranks.
“Anything you do, you want to do your best,” Nye said. “That includes officials. People who get into this do it because they want to stay connected with the game and they want to be the best at what they do. We get paid a couple of dollars, but does it pay for everything? No, it doesn’t. You do it because you want to help the kids and give them the opportunity to do something special.”
Even Paylor, who spends his springs umping for Division I college teams, still dons the black and white stripes and the whistle for high school basketball games. He used his experience officiating the 2014 1A state championship basketball game between Bishop McGuiness and Riverside-Martin to showcase the non-factor reimbursement plays. Notably, state championship officials receive no pay bump from the regular season and playoff games.
“I had the early game at noon, so I had to be there at 10 a.m.,” Paylor said. “I went up the night before, stayed in Chapel Hill and worked the game, all for $71 dollars. Do you think I did it for the money? No, because like nine out of 10 people doing this, I do it for a love of the game and a love of officiating.
Turner is always looking to recruit new officials to the game, particularly former athletes looking to stay engaged with the sport.
“It’s about staying involved in the game, staying connected with the sport that gave you memories,” Turner said. “You help keep dreams alive. You give people an opportunity to do something they never thought possible. You give people a chance to be part of a team and part of a group.”