The campaign launched more than a year ago, a local, statewide and national effort to recruit high school referees. That’s about the time veteran official Kenny Seifert joined the movement, traveling to Missouri colleges and universities in search of potential initiates.
Inevitably, at some point during his presentation — centered around the benefits of refereeing — a student will raise a hand and interrupt. Seifert knows what question is coming.
“They’ll ask about dealing with criticism — parents yelling, fans yelling, coaches yelling, players arguing,” Seifert said. “They’re hesitant. That’s a very real concern.”
Recent headlines from Kansas City have served as the attack ads to the campaign.
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Earlier this month in Raytown, a 21-year-old fan left the stands and punched a referee in the face after disagreements with calls made during a junior-varsity girls basketball game, according to a police report. This week, a Wichita police captain was charged with battery and disorderly conduct after allegedly shoving a 17-year-old girl officiating a youth basketball game.
The incidents — and others like them — have state and local athletics officials concerned about the long-lasting consequences. Namely, a dwindling number of high school referees.
“We’ve been trying to get more young people into officiating because of a lot of guys are reaching that age of retirement, but we’re having trouble getting young people interested because of stuff like that,” said Mark Bubalo, whose duties as the Greater Kansas City Suburban Conference’s assistant executive director include assigning varsity officials. “You have to worry about getting attacked during a game? Who wants to do that for $60?”
The median age of referees has increased in recent years in both Missouri and Kansas. Fewer young people are becoming officials, according to the Kansas and Missouri high school activities associations (KSHSAA and MSHSAA).
It’s a far-reaching dilemma and such a concern that the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) sent out an op-ed to media outlets this week, encouraging the younger generation to become officials.
“This is a topic of conversation at least once a week around here,” said Jeremy Holaday, an assistant executive director at KSHSAA who previously worked as a referee. “It’s that dire.
“We’re trying to campaign all we can. Usually, the first response you hear is the fans and parents are just too unruly. It’s not worth it to them.”
KSHSAA executive director Gary Musselman wrote that “it is not uncommon for middle school and freshman games in some sports to be postponed or even cancelled because there is no one available to officiate them.”
Neither MSHSAA nor KSHSAA varsity events have been affected. Not yet.
“We haven’t hit that critical stage,” said Jason West, communications director for MSHSAA. “But we’re probably closer to that stage today than we were two or three years ago.”
Thus, a response ...
A year ago, MSHSAA hired Seifert, a 13-year high school official, and sent him on the road. He pinpoints students taking classes relating to coaching, officiating, exercise sciences and the like, and he speaks with them. He attempts to focus on the positives. Officiating presents a way for athletes to stay in the game, make some extra money and form new friendships.
That’s the pitch.
Within the last 18 months, the request has been for high school coaches to repeat it to their players. Every four years, they should each be recruiting one new official, the coaches are told.
But that question always pops up. What about that constant arguing? Why bother?
Earlier this week, The Star spoke with local veteran referees who believe criticism from fans and coaches isn’t any more prevalent today than it was when they started. People have been arguing calls for years, whether it comes from the stands, the bench or players on the court.
But the severity of those incidents has become more substantial. And the arena — especially a basketball court — often leaves refs exposed, within close proximity to fans.
“We usually know when we miss a call, but we don’t have the benefit of replay. We don’t get a re-do,” Seifert said. “I think the tougher nights are when the fans start making it personal. In high school, you’re often officiating in a geographical area where your face becomes more familiar to people. So when those crowds start to personalize it and become insensitive to the human emotions, that can become frustrating to deal with.”
If convincing the younger generation to apply is the initial task, the second objective is persuading them to stick with it. Only 20 percent of referees return for a third season, according to the NFHS.
KSHSAA has begun studying the cause. It sent out surveys to those who have quit in their initial three years. While several mentioned the “lack of sportsmanship” or “verbal abuse” from players, coaches and spectators, other factors were mentioned at a greater rate. A family move, a career change and the expense of attending officiating clinics were among the most common responses.
But with sign-ups, the conversation returns to the original point.
“The abuse of officials — like the referee getting punched — is what they hear about or what they see in the media, so why on earth would they want to become an official?” Holaday said. “We have to change the conversation. You become an official because you love the game and want to stay a part of it, or you make friendships or get exercise or make extra money.
“There are lot of positive reasons to get into it. But we have to get them past that first part — the abuse of officials — because that makes them worry.”