A Need For Stripes

The landscape of high school athletics is on the verge of changing in a big — and unfortunate — way.

And it isn’t due to growing concerns over the risk of concussions or suffering other significant injuries. High school athletics is nearing crisis mode because those who are responsible for enforcing the rules that keep our kids safe during competition are becoming harder to find. 

There’s an alarming shortage of athletic officials these days. A number that’s been dwindling for years.

“I don’t see the trouble right now at the varsity level finding quality officials,” Crawfordsville athletic director Bryce Barton said. “But we’re starting to see fewer numbers for lower level games — JV, freshman level, or even middle school — because we’re not getting new people into it.”

Here’s the issue: Many of today’s officials, some who have been at it for as many as 20 or 30 years, are getting older, slower and closer to the day when they physically can’t keep up anymore. And the crop of younger officials to replace them isn’t enough.

“I won’t say that they’re not capable, but their actual physical ability has deteriorated — me included,” said Mark Maxwell, the executive secretary of the Western Indiana Officials Association and IHSOLA president for the 24 officials associations in Indiana. 

“But there’s nobody else to take their spot,” he continued. “So you hang around because if you don’t there’s going to be games that aren’t going to be played because we don’t have officials. And that’s coming pretty shortly.” 

The bottom line: If more people don’t get involved as officials, fans will soon see noticeable changes. The days when games are canceled or postponed because officials aren’t available could come sooner rather than later.

Maxwell said nearly 40 varsity football games in northern Indiana still don’t have officiating crews booked, and the start of the regular season is less than a month away. That’s especially concerning considering most athletic directors have crews penciled in as far out as four years. 

What happens when no one is available on a Friday night? That’s when fans will notice high school varsity football games — “Friday Night Lights” — being rescheduled more and more on Saturdays.

“If you start scheduling games on Saturdays, there becomes very little downtime for coaches and you’ll probably see some coaches get out of it,” Southmont head football coach Desson Hannum said. “It’s a grind to start with, but if you start adding the games on Saturdays, as coaches, you find very little time away from the game if that happens.”

Aside from practice and film throughout the week, film sessions continue Saturday mornings, and many coaching staffs gather Sundays to prepare for the following week.

Plus, a varsity football game on Saturday just isn’t the same.

“It just kind of takes away from the atmosphere of a Friday night,” Hannum said. “That’s supposed to be when high school football is being played.”

Indiana isn’t the only state searching for officials. Beginning this year, a high school in Ohio will offer and officiating class as an elective in an effort to help with the shortage of officials there.

Mike Pereira, a former NFL referee and current analyst for Fox Sports, is doing his part. He recently launched “Battlefields to Ballfields,” a nonprofit group helping military veterans become sports officials.

And last spring the National Federation of State High School Associations kicked off a national campaign to recruit new officials and address the issues leading officials to quit after a few years, resulting in the current lack of officials overall.

“It’s down for a number of reasons,” Robert Faulkens, an assistant commissioner at the IHSAA, said. “And what we mostly hear is, ‘I can’t advance quickly enough.’ But we can’t do anything about that.”

That’s because it takes time to gain experience and work toward varsity games and the state tournament. 

“The second, and biggest, issue is the way they’re treated as an official, from coaches, players and parents,” Faulkens said. “That’s probably the No. 1 reason that we don’t get guys in or that they’re run off in the first couple of years.”

The IHSAA is promoting sportsmanship, pushing for better relationships between officials and coaches, and urging member schools to help make sure fans don’t get out of line.

The lack of officials is seen in all sports and the IHSAA wants to keep it from affecting any of its state tournaments.

“It’s getting difficult,” Faulkens said. “We’re starting to run out of wiggle room with respect to having enough officials for games.”

Recruiting and retaining numbers is the focus. To get involved is simple. Any current athletic official can help and the 24 officials associations around the state make a point to provide guidance through a mentor program. And the IHSAA gives associations a certain number of free memberships each year for new officials. 

It’s an opportunity to have a hand in maintaining the value athletics at all levels has today.

Plus, officials get to see it all.

“It’s the best place to be on Friday night,” Faulkens said. “If you can’t play it, you can still be right there in the action and part of the game.”

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