Anationwide epidemic has a grip on high school sports with no apparent cure in sight.
Too many games and not enough officials have districts scrambling to fill contracts.
The problem is even worse in Milwaukee, where some schools have been forced to use the same officiating crew for back-to-back junior varsity and varsity contests.
Chris Nicholson knows all about the disturbing trend. He is the Janesville School District’s secretary to the athletic director and is in charge of scheduling officials for a variety of sports. He has also been officiating football, basketball, baseball and softball for 21 years.
“It’s the lower levels like middle school and freshmen games where the problem is the worst,” Nicholson said of the lack of finding officials. “Back in the day, you would have your seniors in high school or college kids come down and officiate at those levels. That’s not the case anymore.
“It’s a day-to-day struggle to find officials, and when there are rainouts or some other type of postponement that maybe pushes a game back a day or two, it’s even tougher. We really are in a world of hurt when it comes to the lack of quality officials available.”
Nicholson said he began to see a change about five or six years ago in the drop of registered officials. He believes the biggest culprit to the ongoing problem are the unruly fans who sit in the stands and do nothing but complain. To him, that’s public enemy No. 1.
“Because of those idiots in the stands who don’t know how to act and think their kid is going to be a professional athlete, those younger kids that might’ve had an interest in officiating see and hear that and think ‘Why would I want to take that abuse?’ Nicholson said. “That’s probably 75 percent of the reason nobody wants to get into officiating.
“The other 25 percent or so is usually a family-related thing such as small children at home or that it interferes with their regular work schedule.
“The money is good, it can be a very rewarding part-time job, and for me, it’s something I love to do.”
Nicholson said that for Janesville high school sporting events, officials make $65 for a varsity contest and $45 for junior varsity.
So what can be done to stem the problem? Nicholson believes a more hands-on administrative presence at sporting events would help, along with coaches and players getting more involved in the pre-game sportsmanship pledge that most high schools read prior to games. Nicholson said he is aware of several schools that have a player or a coach read the WIAA sportsmanship pledge before games rather than the PA announcer. He thinks that sends a much more personal message to the parents in the stands about what will and won’t be tolerated during the course of a game.
Nicholson said he has about 60 capable and qualified basketball officials to choose from when scheduling, which is down from the 100 or so he could rely on five years ago. And with the majority of conferences now using three-man crews for varsity basketball games, that boils down to about 20 crews that Nicholson has to compete for along with all the area conferences outside the Big Eight.
The availability of varsity officials is far less in the other major sports. Football, baseball and softball are all lacking in the number of qualified officials. Nicholson said it’s common to see officials working varsity games that probably are not ready or experienced enough to be doing so.
Nicholson said to generate interest in officiating, he would love to see a sports officiating curriculum offered at the high school level. He also encourages anyone interested in learning more about officiating or becoming one to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The epidemic has reached a critical stage. Hopefully, somebody blows the whistle on it.
John Barry is a sports writer for The Gazette. Email him at email@example.com