High School Sports

Like many states, NC has problem finding officials for youth, high school games.

Roundtable takes on question of public vs private schools

Observer preps writer Langston Wertz hosts a roundtable discussion with prep coaches Aaron Brand, Scott Chadwick and Carolina Varsity's Matt Morrow where the discussion turns to public schools playing private schools.
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Observer preps writer Langston Wertz hosts a roundtable discussion with prep coaches Aaron Brand, Scott Chadwick and Carolina Varsity's Matt Morrow where the discussion turns to public schools playing private schools.

Like many states around the nation, North Carolina is having problems finding officials to referee youth and high school games. A big reason? Abuse from fans, coaches and parents.

Three years ago, the N.C. High School Athletic Association had more than 7,000 officials. Today, that number is about 1,000 less.

Of those 6,000 current officials, 1,900 are between the ages of 36 and 50. More than 1,800 of the officials are between 51-60.

But there are just 615 between 18 and 25, and 767 between the ages of 26-35.

“We need younger officials,” NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker said. “Oftentimes, I worry about that.”

In Louisiana, officials are taking steps to try to end the abuse.

Last week, the Louisiana Senate voted 35-0 for House Bill 184, legislation that would make the “harassment of a school or recreation athletic contest official” a crime. Conviction could bring a maximum jail sentence of 90 days.

The bill was sponsored by state Rep. Cameron Henry, a Republican. The measure must go through the state House due to a Senate amendment that would criminalize not leaving the field or facility when ordered by police.

The National Association of Sports Officials conducted a major survey in 2017 of more than 17,000 officials from all levels and all sports. Among the findings:

About 40 percent surveyed said parents caused the most sportsmanship problems, followed by coaches (29 percent) and fans (18 percent)

Officials said they believed coaches are most responsible for improving sportsmanship (nearly 54 percent surveyed said this) with parents being second (23 percent).

Nearly 57 percent believe sportsmanship is getting worse, and 75 percent of all high school officials said “adult behavior” is the No. 1 reason they stop officiating.

Worse, about 80 percent of new officials work just two years or less due to fan abuse.

“Isn’t it a shame,” Tucker said, “that in 2019, we have state associations and people in authority who have to resort to these types of measures to get people under control in the sporting arena so that a contest can be played? That’s a sad state of affairs across this country, when we have to resort to that.”

Tucker said the NCHSAA spoke to its board of directors last year about potentially pushing for a bill to deal with the assault of officials. Nothing concrete came out of those talks, however. Tucker said that while she expects many states to be watching what happens in Louisiana, she didn’t foresee the NCHSAA pushing for a similar measure here.

Tucker did say, however, that finding younger officials here is a problem.

“What we’re experiencing in North Carolina,” she said, “is retirement. The officials have worked a long time and reached a point when they retire, and the other part is that it’s no longer fun. They say, ‘We’re viewed as the enemy in this game.’”

What makes it hard to recruit new officials are incidents like these:

Four years ago in Texas, two football players intentionally collided with an official — after their coach instructed them to do so.

In 2015, a soccer referee in Michigan was killed after he red-carded a player and was punched in the head.

Last year in Charlotte, a brother-sister officiating tandem got into a fight with a youth coach at a basketball tournament after the coach continually questioned their calls during the game. Police were called but no arrest were ultimately made.

“It’s very bad,” said Ed Addie, owner and president of the Queen City Athletic Association, which put on the Charlotte event last year. “Violence is escalating in youth sports between coaches and officials and officials and parents to the point that officials want there to be security on-site at all times.”

Rick Lewis of Phenom Hoop Report, like Addie, puts on youth and high school travel ball tournaments in the summer. He said one of his biggest headaches is finding quality officials. He encourages his officials to never have dialogue with fans and makes sure to have multiple security personnel on site.

“You just don’t have that big a pocket of qualified officials anymore,” Lewis said. “We had nine courts going at an event last weekend. That’s 18 officials and they are not going to ref all day long. You may need 30 plus. Go to a big travel ball event with 15 or 20 courts and you can imagine that the pool of qualified officials will not always be the best.”

Lewis said the booking agents he uses to hire officials say that, more and more, officials are getting out because of the verbal abuse.

“It’s tough to take,” Lewis said. “And you have to worry, in today’s society, that people will take it to the parking lot or charge officials on the court. I don’t think it’s the norm, though. We had 150 games last weekend (in a Fort Mill, S.C., tournament) and 90 percent of them didn’t have any problems. But you get into your heated games, your rivalries, and it does get a little bit intense.”

Tucker said her association is feeling the pinch, too.

“This (younger) generation,” she said, “is not going to take some of the things that veteran officials have taken through the years. It’s a whole different kind of abuse and vocal displeasure.”

Two years ago, the National Federation of High Schools launched an initiative to recruit new referees. That recruitment is ongoing.

But Tucker feels it’s going to be a problem finding officials until the fans and parents attending games do one simple thing:

Adjust their behavior.

“We are at this juncture in 2019 where people feel they can say what they want to say and do what they want to do at any time,” Tucker said. “Fans feel they have a license when they come into a game. They can be sitting beside the quarterback’s mom and if they don’t like the way the quarterback is playing, they will abuse him.

“We’ve just got to be more civil.”