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Michigan high schools cope with referee shortages

Matthew Bluestein

Mid-Michigan, like the rest of the state, needs to find more referees to staff high school games. It’s a challenging ask, for many reasons.

Michigan high school sports have a problem: a big referee staffing issue, reaching across all sports and all high school athletic leagues. The root of the issue is more complex, with out of control parents, verbal abuse, and safety concerns causing referees to resign, not show up, and forcing games to be moved or canceled across the state.

No football games in Michigan have been canceled as of yet due to the referee issue, but MHSAA Director of Communications Geoff Kimmerly said the issues are across the board.

“Basketball is down about 1,300 officials since 2012, and football is down about 500,” Kimmerly said. “The last two years, total ,we had about 9,200 officials in 2019-2020 and were down to 8,100 last year.”

Matthew Bluestein

Kimmerly, who has been the director of communications for MHSAA for 11 years, said despite the shortage, the association has been able to play every football game they've scheduled so far. He said some games have been moved to Thursdays and Saturdays, due to scheduling conflicts.

Other fall sports, such as soccer haven’t been as lucky, as already multiple games have been canceled due to the shortages. It’s also another reminder that the shortage has spread across every sport, not just the big ones like football and basketball.

“It’s really an all of the above sort of question,” Kimmerly said when asked what sport is missing the most officials, but he did mention softball, baseball, basketball and football as some of the leaders of the shortage. Numbers remain down as officials seem to think the $50-80 they make working a game isn't worth the potential abuse they may face.

“We need to help our spectators understand that we need officials, officials are human beings and yes there will be errors from time to time but they are correct much more often than people give them credit for being correct, and regardless we can't play without them, so we need to appreciate these people a lot more,” said Kimmerly.

Matthew Bluestein

Bill Roose, a 58-year-old born and raised in Detroit, has been working as an official since 1993. For almost 30 years, he shows up every Friday to work as an umpire on the football field.

“I just love being out there on a Friday night,” Roose said.

Roose said that he doesn’t work these games for himself, but rather, as a way to give back to his community. He said parents underestimate this element of the game.

“There needs to be more training and understanding from parents that the folks that are doing these jobs are doing it as ways to give back to the community, and not doing it for the money,” Roose said.

There may be some hope. Kimmerly said some new officials have come to football,up around 5% or 6%, with some sports being up as much as 20%. It’s a start to make up for the losses.

“If we end up, up 5% or 6% across the board that’d be great, obviously we’d rather it be even higher than that, but we’re definitely building back right now,” Kimmerly said.

There is still a lot of work to be done. He said, ideally, they wouldn’t build back to a couple years ago because even then numbers were going down, their goal is to build back to numbers from years further back when they employed over 10,000 officials.

The root of the problem stems from poor parental behavior and lashing out at officials on and off the field, sometimes to the point where some officials fear for their own safety. And with most officials being middle aged men, leagues are desperate to get some young blood into their ranks to boost their numbers.

Roose, whose son recently became an official during the summer, talked about how the division he works for, the Southeastern Michigan Officials Association is “trying like crazy to recruit younger officials to join the ranks,” Roose said.

Roose said just a few years ago the MHSAA said the average age of their officials was around 54 or 55. As of 2021, the new average age is around 49.5.

“That’s beautiful… that’s encouraging for me to know it’s gotten into the 40s. That’s telling me there’s more younger officials joining,” he said. “I hope that’s what that’s telling me and not that the older ones are retiring or not coming back, cause obviously that number can go both ways, so hopefully it’s the younger ones.”

Roose said that a major part of the shortage is not being able to retain officials. Due to all the unfortunate circumstances regarding officials and how they're treated, finding new officials isn't the problem, but rather trying to bring them back for the following weeks and years is the major deficiency the region faces.

“You can always recruit people and try people, whether it’s teachers, policemen, officials, it’s easy to recruit, the challenge has become retaining them,” Roose said.

Matthew Bluestein

Roose stressed that there are officials all over the state who are willing to mentor people and get more referees in the league. The MHSAA’s legacy program pairs youth officials wanting to get involved with an adult mentor who has experience, and allows high schoolers to officiate games. Other ways the MHSAA is recruiting officials is by pushing back the registration deadline, and allowing officials to register for more than one sport at a time, which allows officials to get more work in, while also boosting the total officials available to work games.

For people who want to get involved in becoming an official they can visit the MHSAA website, navigate to the registration tab, take the necessary quizzes, and fill out the necessary documents to get started.

Kimmerly also wanted to stress that there's no pressure for officials to immediately jump into varsity events. He said after someone who registers passes a background check, they are put in touch with a local association who will train, mentor, and help that official get involved in working events..

“This isn't one of those things where somebody who's interested has to be intimidated by the fact that we would put that person directly into some varsity events, that’s not really how this works at all,” Kimmerly said. “Whoever it is that is doing this can just do Middle School and junior high [games] if that person would like, or start with some smaller events and gain some experience and things like that. There’s a small fee to register and then you go from there.”

At the end of the day, as Roose said, officials who work these games aren't in it just for the money they'll make working a game. They are in it because they care about their communities and want to get involved in making them better. Roose told a story of his time working softball games back in 1993, when a parent accused him of not caring enough to make the right call.

It's a moment Roose said will always continue to drive him, “because I do care.”

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