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Who'll Make the Call?

It's Getting More Difficult to Find Enough Officials for High School Events

April 06, 1999|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Longtime referee Tom King knows first-hand just how difficult it has become to find people to make the calls at high school athletic events.

"My oldest son tried to [referee] soccer and after a while he came to me and said, 'Dad, I don't want to get yelled at,' " said King, president of the Southern California Soccer Officials Assn. "You need to have a thick skin out there and I think we are losing talented people who may not have thick skin."

For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is unwelcome criticism, people are shying away from officiating, and section officials say that has created a shortage that has the potential to affect how games are called.

"It's a problem in all sports--soccer, baseball, football and basketball," said longtime referee Speed Castillo, the Southern Section's liaison for officiating. "Once we used to attract lots of people, but my concern now is there just aren't enough of them coming out to be referees, particularly the young ones."

Referee shortages aren't confined to prep sports. Youth leagues have had mixed results in recruiting game officials for years. Some regions of the American Youth Soccer Organization and Little League Baseball require parents to volunteer as referees or umpires. The Southern California Volleyball Assn. makes club teams supply players and coaches to keep score or call the lines at tournaments.

In February, Castillo, a football, basketball and baseball official, shocked a meeting of the Orange County Athletic Directors' Assn. when he characterized this school season as the worst he can remember for getting officials for all sports in his nearly 40 years as an official. Among other things, he said, the quality of officiating has deteriorated because many veteran officials have retired, while recruitment of new officials qualified to handle varsity games has lagged.

More and more events, such as last Wednesday's Santiago-Garden Grove baseball game for example, have had to be postponed or canceled because there are no officials available to work them.

Castillo's complaints are the tip of the iceberg. Interviews with section and school administrators, athletic directors and game officials paint a bleak picture.

Among the concerns:

* The 12 associations responsible for supplying officials to the county have not done a good job attracting young people.

* Turnover is as high as 50% a year and new applicants aren't always familiar with the sports they call. "We get people who don't have a clue about volleyball and we don't have time to train them on how the game is played," said Eunetta Pickett, referee assigner for the Orange County Volleyball Officials Assn.

* School budgets are tight, and relatively low pay has driven some high school officials elsewhere. "A guy can work two church league games and make more money. It's easier, with less pressure, and he's in and out in the same amount of time," said Rich Kollen, an administrator for the Orange County Basketball Officials Assn.

* Unruly spectators, lack of sportsmanship and harsh criticism by coaches and players cause some to throw in the towel. "You are constantly taking crap from coaches on the sideline," said Marina boys' soccer Coach Tom Freker, a long-time referee and former assigner for the Orange County Chapter of the Southern California Soccer Officials Assn. "Sooner or later any guy is going to say, 'Hey, this is not worth it.' "

* Many game officials do it as a second job to earn extra money. They don't always approach the game with the "high school mind-set" the participating schools want. "At one time the referees were all coming out of the education ranks," Castillo said. "That's no longer the case now because the people running the schools aren't former jocks. They're strictly business administrators."

* Upfront costs for equipment, uniforms, association dues, assigner fees and personal liability insurance can reach as high as $500 or more a season, per sport. Officials are also required to take nine to 18 hours of unpaid recertification each year for each sport they work and must also pay for transportation to and from events. "That's a lot of [time] and money to spend, and then what if you find out you don't like doing it?" 19-year-old baseball umpire Scott Nelson said.

Bob Still, an umpire and spokesman for the 19,000-member National Assn. of Sports Officials, said those complaints are heard throughout the nation.

"We know from talking to all of our officials associations that there is a downward trend nationally in the number of officials coming into the profession," said Still, who doubles as public relations manager for Wisconsin-based Referee Magazine, said. "It's a major concern of ours."

Nelson, of Huntington Beach, created a stir last month at a freshman baseball game when, working alone, he refused to allow a Westminster High assistant to coach third base because he was in a wheelchair.

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