AURORA, Colo. — The smell of concession stand popcorn, the beat of the marching band, the roar of the crowd. High school sports are back, but a shortage of referees is threatening the games this fall.
The Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) says the shortage has reached a tipping point.
“We are really in a crisis right now, and we cannot supply enough officials for everybody to have games on Friday night,” said Mike Book, assistant commissioner of CHSAA and director of referees.
Book is referring to Friday night football, but said the shortage of officials includes all sports.
“It’s going to impact every sport,” Book said. “The short-term answer is we’ve got to move games off these weekend nights. And there’s been several schools that have really helped out with that, already. Others have been a little more hesitant to do so.”
The shortage is attributed to multiple factors, including low pay and lingering staffing issue related to the pandemic, but perhaps most of all is unsportsmanlike behavior from parents and fans.
“Absolutely,” Book said. “I think it’s one of our main problems that we have to address. When I ask people if they want to get involved in officiating, the number one answer I get is, "I don’t want to get yelled at." We can’t have that be the number one answer. ”
Hinkley High School head football coach Dennis York says his team has worked too hard and they are ready for the season, whether it's under the Friday night lights or not.
“We don't mind playing on a Saturday,” York said. “We don't mind playing on a Thursday.”
There simply aren't enough refs to call all the games scheduled for Friday, so if some teams move to Thursday nights or Saturday afternoons, CHSAA says it can use the same refs those days.
“They are a vital part of the DNA of all sports,” York said. “But a lot of these officials, they're just tired of being berated.”
“And really, what this is about is about the kids playing. Right?” said Book, who has been a basketball referee for years. “Sports keep kids involved. It teaches them so many things about life, adversity, teamwork. ”
Book says this year, CHSAA will take action if fans become unruly — a promise to officials to be more proactive.
“I think it's more than just talking, because I think we have talked about it for years,” Book said. “We have to control it. We have to put our foot down and say we can’t have that, because we're not going to have officials. And if we don't have officials, we're not going to have games.”
Back on the practice field, York says ultimately, it's each team's responsibility.
“We are responsible not only for our sidelines, but also our fans that belong to us,” York said.
Book says CHSAA also plans to discuss pay for officials, as well as gas mileage for officials who travel long distances for games as part of a new commitment to address the officiating shortage.