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Fixing the officiating shortage in Colorado is no easy task

Local teams have canceled games due to lack of referees

The referee tosses the coin at ...
Jeremy Papasso/ Staff Photographer
The referee tosses the coin at the start of a football game between Broomfield and Loveland High School’s on Friday in Broomfield.

The scenario has become all too familiar for high school sports, not just in Colorado but across the entire United States: schools are forced to cancel games due to a lack of officials to referee the contests.

Chase McBride, the executive director of athletics for the St. Vrain Valley School District, knows the headache all too well. Over the past few years, much of his time has been spent shifting schedules to accommodate not just the few officials who can work, but the multitude of teams vying for playing time at Everly Montgomery Field, the district’s shared stadium.

“You’ll get a notification that you can’t play on a certain day and you could potentially have to move days and times,” McBride explained. “Make-up games are really difficult just because of the lack of officials. When they’re there, they do a great job for us, but they’re certainly hurting for numbers, to say the least.”

Friday night lights has now turned into Thursday night lights or Saturday afternoon sun.

At the beginning of 2022, the National Federation of High School Sports Associations conducted a survey of each state’s high school sports association and found that nearly 50,000 officials nationwide have left the sidelines since the 2018-2019 school year.

While the reasons may vary from state to state, two chief issues arose: poor pay rate and parent behavior. The COVID-19 pandemic only served to exacerbate the latter.

David Trimble, the president of the Colorado Football Officials Association, has felt the pinch in his own region, and the growth within communities has only worsened it as new schools and programs open up.

“We just, recently in northern Colorado, had our annual draw, and we cannot cover all the schools that put their schedules together,” he said. “We don’t dictate that. They do that, and we had to move 64 games from Friday nights to either Saturdays or Thursdays.”

His core of 22 football officiating crews between Longmont, Greeley, Fort Collins and Wray shrunk to just 15. In recent years, the CFOA has focused its energy on enlisting the help of athletic directors and coaches at each individual school. Together, they’ve tried to recruit kids coming out of high school to join the officiating ranks, but find that many aren’t willing to work the junior varsity or lower-level contests for lower pay.

The current pay scale, which generally ranges from about $50 to $65 for varsity sports, isn’t helping the curb appeal, especially when taking the behavior of parents and coaches into consideration.

“A lot of people think that the number one answer is pay … but the answer I always get is, ‘I don’t want to get yelled at,’” said Michael Book, CHSAA’s new assistant commissioner. “‘I absolutely don’t want to be a part of that kind of atmosphere where you go, and you’re providing a service to kids so they can play and it’s something that you love to do, but you’re spending the night worried about how much you’re getting yelled at, and how derogatory that it gets.’”

Book moved to associate commissioner after the passing of Tom Robinson, and his position has been amended to place a greater emphasis on official recruitment and retention. CHSAA has committed itself to cure the problem as far as it’s able.

“Without question, officials play an integral role in helping us to realize our mission in serving our student-athletes,” newly-hired CHSAA commissioner Michael Krueger said in an emailed statement. “Our staff and our membership are fully committed to working together to address the crisis we have currently with an officials shortage. We are proud to have Michael Book leading this charge for our membership.”

The onus falls on the athletic directors and administrators of each individual high school to crack down on parent behavior, and McBride has worked closely with each of his schools to ensure that they are building the types of relationships with parents that would allow tough conversations surrounding that topic.

The answer to solving the recruitment and retention issue is by no means an easy fix, but Trimble is seeing individual communities, specifically booster clubs, step up to try to raise more money to pay officials better. He’s hoping that, as athletic directors continue to work to tame the interactions between officials and fans, more and more officials will begin to return to the sidelines.

“Somehow, we’ve just got to convey to the parents in the stands that the officials are a very integral part of the game and they are doing the best they can and they are human,” Trimble said. “I think they get used to watching Saturdays and Sundays and they have replay that they go to check their calls. On Friday night, you get one chance to get it right, and we are working the same size football field as college and professional levels that have seven and eight officials. So at the high school level, we will miss some calls because we cannot watch everybody as well as we can at the next level.”

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