Dwindling ranks of refs impacting school sports

TOPEKA. Kan. (WIBW) - Kansas schools are seeing a shortage of men and women in stripes - which brought John Deedrick back to Friday nights.

He says he tried to leave the football officiating ranks five years ago.

"I'm back because a white hat (head umpire) called and said he lost two from his crew," Deedrick said.

Deedrick started officiating middle and high school sports when he was 20 years old -- that's now 55 years ago. Baseball is his passion, but he's done basketball, volleyball and football, too. He tried to scale back, but the thinning ranks brought him back.

"We're seeing decreases in officials for a number of reasons," says Fran Martin, the officials liaison for the Kansas State High School Activities Association.

Martin says the numbers of registered officials started a steady decline about 10 years ago. She says a changing workforce, coupled with schools starting games earlier in the day had refs making tough calls on - and off - the field.

"As the job market changed, and I need to be at my job or my employer would say I'll find someone else to do this if you want keep taking off to officiate - that created challenges, particularly for younger officials because they're just starting in their careers and they don't have a lot of vacation time," she said.

Work aside, the second main reason officials don't start - or don't stick around - is behavior.

"Poor sportsmanship on the part of fans, parents - coaches a little bit," Martin said.

Deedrick says, when it comes to fans, young officials need to expect they'll hear some noise and tune it out.

"Every time you blow your whistle, 50 percent of the crowd isn't gonna like it," he said.

But Deedrick says coaches need to step back and realize they can be part of the solution.

"We have JV coaches ripping JV officials - and (the officials) can't take it and quit, and they don't move up - so coaches have to appreciate we have officials who need to get started," he said.

KSHSAA's number of registered officials for football dropped from 1400 in the 2007-2008 school year, to 1290 in 2017-18 -- and it's down 50 more this season.

It's not just football. Basketball has seen an even bigger drop, with baseball, softball, volleyball, and wrestling down, too. Soccer is the exception, but Martin says that's because more schools have launched soccer programs.

KSHSAA Registered Referees
  • Baseball
    • 2017-18: 460
    • 2007-08: 483
  • Basketball
    • 2017-18: 1,804
    • 2007-08: 2,066
  • Football
    • 2017-18: 1,290 (Now: 1,240)
    • 2007-08: 1,400
  • Soccer
    • 2017-18: 329
    • 2007-08: 264
  • Softball
    • 2017-18: 406
    • 2007-08: 450
  • Volleyball
    • 2017-18: 843
    • 2007-08: 862
  • Wrestling
    • 2017-18: 258
    • 2007-08: 290

It's forcing schools to get creative with scheduling.

"In northwest Kansas, frankly, the shortage is so bad that they have some officiating crews working two games on a Friday," Martin said. "They may work a three o'clock game, get done, then pack up and go on to a site where they don't start til maybe seven-thirty or eight o'clock."

Martin says they've also instructed middle schools to avoid games on the same nights high schools play the sport; some crews have had to work short-handed; and rescheduling is a toss up.

"We do know there are times when a games gets bumped - particularly in spring in baseball and softball - if we have a rainout and have to move multiple games to a day, we may not get umpires to cover those games," she said.

Want to become an official? Click here or call 785-273-5329.

But they hope never to have to ask schools to shorten seasons or limit teams. KSHSAA launched a scholarship program to pay the $50 registration fee for new officials, and match them with a mentor, something Deedrick enjoys.

"You share a story with some of these people and then they're in a game and remember a situation I had and it's like - I remember that play - then they'll know how to handle it," he said.

KSHSAA also is looking - not just at college age - but empty nesters to fill the ranks.

"Our kids have left, they're done playing, I understand the game because I've been watching or maybe coached when our kids were young, now how about giving back to the game a little bit," Martin said.

And giving back is what Deedrick says keeps him going.

"The game is for the kids. We know fans are going to holler, we know coaches are going to holler, but the game is for the kids," he said. "People ask why are you still working at 75? Because I'm enjoying it. I'm still having fun with the kids."

Officiating pays anywhere from $50 to $100 a game, depending on the sport and assignment. You must attend a rules session, and pay the $50 registration fee, which covers a rules book, and insurance.