Officially in need: High school referees getting harder to find

Douglas Fritz • Jan 28, 2018 at 6:54 PM

Yell at them if you must. Just remember the games can’t be played without them.

A shortage of referees across Tennessee has prompted the TSSAA to issue a statewide call for help. Needed are not a few here-and-there fill-ins, but a young crop of former athletes with sharp minds and thick skin.

And Northeast Tennessee is not immune from the decline.

The TSSAA said high school officials are retiring faster than new licenses are being issued. The result is the cancellation of junior varsity, freshman and middle school games because there simply aren’t enough men or women to officiate them.

Longtime official Brent Warner said things are getting worse by the year in this area.

“In three years I’m going to be scared to death when I go out there,” said Warner. “That’s because I know certain officials won’t be there because they’ve retired.”

In the Tri-Cities Basketball Officials Association, Warner said there are only two officials under age 30. The organization supplies referees for games from Mountain City all the way to South Greene.

The good old days?

Warner started calling games in his early 20s. He was trained by guys like Dennis Whitson, Butch Patterson and Larry Hutchinson.

“You had some solid officials there,” said Warner. “And young guys like Richard Church, Bart Lyon, Brad Christian and myself were coming up. It was a good young group for the older guys to hand off the baton.”

Now 42 years old, Warner doesn’t have a bumper crop of youngsters eager to gain insight to his knowledge and experience. One of the problems, said Warner, is money.

“They can make more money doing games at the TNT Sports Complex (in Kingsport),” said Warner. “They can wear shorts, work close to home, arrive 15 minutes before the game, and they’re happy.”

Warner said officials can also make more money doing middle school games. High school basketball referees earn $95 for two varsity games on a given night.

“I had a varsity official who was supposed to work with me turn me down because he was making $35 more doing middle school games,” said Warner. “He worked two JV games with four-minute quarters, and then two varsity games with six-minute quarters. He had four games, was out of there within four hours, and he got $130.”

On Tuesday, Warner called games in Elizabethton between Sullivan East and the Cyclones. By the time he drove from Kingsport to Treadway Gym — officials do not receive mileage reimbursements until the postseason — officiated the games and got back home, he had been gone 5½ hours. Figuring in the standard mileage rate and the 60-mile round trip, Warner earned $63, or about $11.45 an hour.

For the kids

It’s not about the money or time, said Warner. He is the general manager of Carter-Trent Funeral Home, and that is his first priority. He said he calls games for the student-athletes.

“We have to remember we do this for the kids,” said Warner. “I want kids to look at me 10 years down the road and say, ‘That guy was a good official.’ These days it’s getting to the point where officials are focused on what they’re getting paid.”

And the pay probably won’t seem like much when putting up with mom, dad and crazed fans sending verbal assaults their way from opening tip to final buzzer.

“The new generation getting into officiating, they get yelled and screamed at and they’re out of it,” said Warner. “They say, ‘I’m not putting up with it.’ They don’t want to go through the ‘cutting your teeth’ phase.”

Plus, it’s not quite as prestigious as it once was. The Arby’s Classic still draws a full house, but attendance is clearly down across the board at high school basketball games. Warner said game overload is partly to blame.

“You have middle school games, middle school tournaments, and you have travel leagues with tournaments every weekend for kids in eighth grade and under,” said Warner. “You have spring baseball going on. And instead of having Tuesday and Friday going to high school basketball, even those nights are divided up into many activities.”

In one of Warner’s recent games at a Class AAA school, he estimated the attendance to be no more than 250 people.

“Out of all of the students in that school, maybe 20 of them showed up for the game,” said Warner.

How can the shortage get fixed?

One thing keeping new referees away from high school sports is the sea of red tape used by the TSSAA. In particular, Warner said the TSSAA is asking too much of its officials.

“The TSSAA has mandatory physical appearances on Wednesday or Sunday, five times a year,” said Warner. “That’s compared with college, which requires one. You do have webinars for college, but you do it on your own time. TSSAA needs to advance with technology and help young people. They can live with an IPhone meeting.”

Another problem is the picky demand of the dress code.

“We need to make it more appealing to young officials,” said Warner. “The dress code doesn’t need to be so strict. With the TSSAA, you even have to have a certain type of lanyard for your whistle.”

Being more proactive in seeking young officials might help, Warner said.

“We need coaches to talk to players when they are seniors,” said Warner. “Tell them officials are needed. Then when they are 20 years old, they know the game and they can get spending money by starting to officiate.”

This will put young and athletic kids on the court, which helps public perception.

“Fans would rather see a 20-something physically fit person running up and down the court as opposed to a 70-year-old out-of-shape guy, who was a good official 20 years ago — but now he’s just hanging on,” said Warner.

Is money the answer?

“You have to dangle the young people a carrot,” said Warner. “Increasing the fee is one thing. Money may be an incentive for the younger generation.”

But there’s only so far that can go. High school budgets won’t be able to match the $185 offered by Milligan College, or the $250 Warner received from officiating a game at King University on Friday.

“More experienced officials are choosing college over high school,” said Warner. “It’s one game and a lot more money.”

Elizabethton High School athletic director Mike Wilson said the money issue is more complex than just paying officials.

“You’ve got to pay ticket takers and police security,” said Wilson. “And we pay clean up for the facilities after the games. Referees are being fairly compensated in my view. I don’t know what the solution is. I really don’t.”

What does the game look like these days?

Sonny Hunt, longtime public-address announcer at Elizabethton, said the officiating quality isn’t what it used to be.

“In a three-person crew, it seems like one is a little weak,” said Hunt. “Over the years, the quality has slowly declined. But we still have good officials in District 1. It’s not as bad here as it may be in the Knoxville and Nashville areas.”

Who to contact

Individuals interested in learning more about becoming a high school official or to begin the application process can do so at www.HighSchoolOfficials.com.

Warner said they can also contact the athletic director at their former high school.

“Every athletic director, they can get with a supervisor, like Jim Cradic,” said Warner.

Recommended for You

    Johnson City Press Videos