Critical shortage of football officials as high school season nears

  • Official Michael Murphy sets the chains after a first down during the 2018 Division II Football Championship. KYLE SCOFIELD / Courtesy

  • The officiating crew (left to right: Jim Presher, Richard Driscoll, Paul Page, Kyle Scofield, Dave Dickson, Mark Redman) poses for a picture in the locker room before the NHIAA’s 2018 Division I Football Championship in Durham. The New Hampshire Football Officials Association is facing a critical shortage of officials heading into the upcoming high school season. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 7/9/2020 4:50:22 PM

For 20 of the last 25 years, Ernie Clark has been assigning officials to high school football games across the state as the Commissioner of the New Hampshire Football Officials Association. During that time, he’s seen the total number of officials decline steadily, and he has a pretty good idea why.

“I do think there’s more difficulty these days getting out of a ballpark once you step off that field and not encountering an irate parent or someone that takes exception to how you officiated the game,” Clark said. “And some of our younger people, or just our newer people, say, ‘I don’t need to take that kind of stuff.’”

The downward trend may reach a breaking point by the end of the summer if fall sports are played as scheduled. As of now, there are 120 varsity-certified officials in the NHFOA and 20 more who are still part of the training program. That’s just enough to cover the varsity games scheduled for the opening weekend on Sept. 4-5, but some sub-varsity games have already been rescheduled due to a lack of officials. And some of those varsity games, or games later in the season, could potentially need to be rescheduled or even canceled if officials have to back out because they happen to get sick, have a family emergency, want a weekend off, or if they think the coronavirus guidelines the schools and the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association are going to enact are too strict, or maybe not strict enough.

“There are certainly some unknown factors here,” Clark said. “For example, if officials were told that they had to wear a mask while officiating, that would impact the number of officials that we would have available. … They’re all private contractors, so we can’t make them go or do something they don’t want to do. But it may come to a point where we have to say, ‘If you want to officiate, you have to do x, y and z for the coronavirus,’ and if they’re not willing to do that, we’ll lose people.”

The COVID crisis has not created the current shortage of officials but it hasn’t helped either. Given all of the uncertainty, Clark isn’t scheduling anything past opening weekend until the coronavirus guidelines for football are released, which he expects to happen sometime this month. At that point, he’ll survey the NHFOA membership and see how many are still willing to work. If there aren’t enough officials to go around, teams may have to play on Thursdays or Sundays, or maybe Friday afternoons or Saturday nights. Some games may not get played at all.

Ideally, Clark would like to have a pool of 160 officials. Last year, there were 140 and this year it fell to 120. A major reason for that drop-off is age – the average age for an official in the NHFOA is 60. Combine that with irate parents and fans chasing away younger officials and the problem becomes clear – officials are aging out faster than they are being replaced.

“It’s tough to convince younger people to go run around for a couple of hours and get screamed at for, after accounting for everything, about $15 an hour,” said Kyle Scofield, a 36-year-old official who is the chair of the NHFOA’s apprentice program. “And we’re losing about 10 to 15 people a year due to retirement and everything else, so if we don’t start getting a younger demographic into officiating the problem is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Scofield was planning on recruiting younger officials this spring with presentations at high schools and colleges. The coronavirus canceled those plans, so Scofield went to the usual COVID Plan B – he went virtual. He had volunteers posting messages in local Facebook groups. He used the Cameo app to get a promotional video from former New England Patriot Lawyer Milloy emphasizing the importance of football officials. He’s reached out to various news outlets to help spread the word.

The virtual efforts netted real results with 35 people signed up to start their NHFOA training next week. They’ll study the rules in virtual classes, learn officiating mechanics on the field without players, work practices and scrimmages side-by-side with an experienced official and then start working on their own at the sub-varsity level (youth, freshman, JV) when the games, presumably, start in September. They’ll learn more advanced aspects of officiating – like dealing with coaches – next year, and then be fully certified to work varsity games by the fall of 2022.

The average number of new recruits in recent years has been around 20, so getting 35 during the pandemic is impressive. Still, only about five of those 20 have been making it through the two-year training program to become varsity certified. If the same percentage applies to this class, then eight or nine of the 35 will eventually become varsity officials. That would probably maintain the status quo, but that’s not good enough. If the entire high school season gets canceled, Scofield will have more time to recruit new members, but the shortage issue will likely look like the same in the fall of 2021.

There are factors other than belligerent fans keeping younger people away from officiating. As Scofield said, the money isn’t fantastic - $90 for a varsity game, $68 for JV and freshman, $70 for youth games – and there are more part-time or gig jobs than in the past. Clark said that people simply value their time more these days and are less willing to commit to anything for 10 straight weekends. Prep school and Massachusetts high school games also draw away some officials who might otherwise be working an NHIAA game.

But make no mistake, abuse from the stands is the primary factor.

“A guy my age who has been doing it for 30 years, frankly I don’t care what a spectator says or if a coach is giving me a hard time I know how to go talk to him,” said Steve Hall, a long-time official who is also the rules interpreter for the NHFOA. “But if it’s a 27-year-old with the crowd on him and the sideline harping him, that’s tough. It was tough for me when I was in my late 20s, you just don’t have the emotional intelligence to deal with a 50-year-old screaming at you. That just takes time.”

(Those interested in becoming a football official can contact Kyle Scofield at nhfoaaprenticechair@gmail.com)

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