By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Managing Editor

There’s a shortage of high school officials in almost every sport, including football. In some communities the shortage is critical and high school games are being either postponed or cancelled. Organizations across the country are coming up with solutions.

In some areas around the country, Friday Night Lights has moved to Thursday evening or even Saturday afternoon games. The shortage of officials is forcing schools to move games from nights other than Friday to accommodate all games.

“You can’t play the game without us,” said Michael Fitch, executive director of the Texas Association of Sports Officials. “If you turn on the lights and there aren’t any officials, what are you going to do?”

While the relatively meager pay and inconvenient hours may be part of the reason, most officials leaving the profession cite the abuse they take from spectators as the primary factor.

“There’s certainly been surveys done that the overwhelming reason individuals leave the vocation of officiating is the abuse they take primarily from parents,” said Bruce Howard of the National Federation of State High School Associations. “For most officials, it’s a secondary job that helps them stay involved in a sport they love while making a little extra money on the side. When you have people berating them from the stands, it’s not worth it.”

Here are some programs that have been launched to address the officiating crisis.

  • NFHS marketing campaigns: In 2017, the National Federation of State High School Associations started a national officials recruitment campaign targeting high schools. Posters titled “The Final Whistle? – Not So Fast” emphasize that “The High Schools in Your State Need New Officials.” Last year, the NFHS released an editorial, “Dear Mom and Dad … Cool it.”
  • HighSchoolOfficials.com: This year, NFHS added a new program targeting policemen, firemen, first responders and ex-military as potential officials. The organization also launched the website: https://highschoolofficials.com/. There, anyone in the nation who wants to become an official can enter his/her information, and a member from that person’s state association will follow up to provide information on training. More than 16,000 people have applied through the site in the last year.
  • Battlefield to Ballfields: Former NFL official Mike Pereira started a national initiative, Battlefield to Ballfields, which is geared toward getting veterans involved in officiating. It reimburses their local and state dues, cost of training and any equipment needs. Veterans who are interested in becoming officials can register at that site: https://www.battlefields2ballfields.org/
  • Students Today Are Referees Tomorrow: START asks high school coaches to identify prep players who love their sport but might not have the talent to play at the next level and might have an interest to stay involved through officiating.
  • Player recruitment: The Texas Association of Sports Officials is just one organization that is challenging every varsity coach to encourage at least one or two players on their team to consider officiating at lower-level games. Fitch believes players have a “game IQ” that could help them officiate games.

Who Makes a Good Official?

It’s a job description unlike any other – that of a high school football official. It’s important to have some athleticism, particularly for officials like the back judge who might run as much as 6-8 miles per game. It’s important to be able to command respect and make calls with confidence. And it’s important to be able to take when it comes to the give-and-take with coaches and spectators.

“I don’t think the answer is finding people who are good at being yelled at,” said Bruce Howard with the National Federation of State High School Associations. “That’s not the route we want to go. We want to change the culture. That’s not acceptable behavior toward officials.”

Howard did offer some suggestions for prospective officials.

  1. Former high school or college athletes
  2. Firefighters, police officers, first responders
  3. Shift workers with flexibility on nights/weekends

About the author

Dan Guttenplan