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Who'll Make The Call?

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


Longtime referee Tom King knows 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 City and Southern 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."

More and more events throughout the Southland have been postponed or canceled because there were no officials available to work them.

Interviews with section and school administrators, athletic directors and game officials paint a bleak picture.

Among the concerns:

* The associations responsible for supplying officials for high school sports have not done a good job attracting young people.

* Turnover is as high as 50% a year in some areas, and new applicants aren't always familiar with the sports they call.

* School budgets are tight, and relatively low pay has driven some high school officials elsewhere.

* Unruly spectators, lack of sportsmanship and harsh criticism by coaches, players and parents cause some to throw in the towel.

* 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?" said Scott Nelson, a 19-year-old baseball umpire.

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. "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.

Nelson said that he was only enforcing the rules, but he wound up in the middle of a dispute between the umpire association's interpretation of the rule book and the Southern Section, which, according to section Commissioner Dean Crowley, has since sided with the coach.

Nonetheless, section officials say they are looking for more guys like Nelson. He's young, willing to make long commutes, accept average pay and loud criticism and still have the courage to make the calls.

"We have to come up with a system to get young, just-out-of-high school players involved," said Crowley. "To me that's the answer."

But veteran referees such as Crowley and Lee Joseph acknowledge that putting on a chest protector or blowing the whistle is a hard sell, particularly to young people.

Joseph, an assigner for City Section football games, said the section loses two of three officials after their first year because of low pay, the initial financial investment for equipment or abuse from participants and fans.

"All professions require a person to pay his dues and earn respect, and there's a lot of people who don't want to do that,' said Joseph, who worked as a Pacific 10 Conference official and continues to evaluate officials for the conference. "But it doesn't help when you're criticized all the time."

Some say pay increases would attract more referees. Pay ranges between $35 and $45 a game in the Southern Section, depending on the sport, said Bill Clark, assistant commissioner of the section. In the City, football officials earn $51 a game, baseball umpires $51 and basketball officials $46. A swimming official can earn $72 for overseeing four levels in a meet, Joseph said.

Castillo pointed out many referees would rather work community college events, which generally draw smaller crowds. They earn $75 or more in about the same time it takes to call a high school game played in packed, sometimes hostile gymnasiums. At the highest level a college official can make $550 a game, plus expenses, in the Big West or Pac-10.

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