MHSAA official Trent Anderson looks on during a wrestling match at the state finals Feb. 24 in Kalamazoo.

MHSAA official Trent Anderson looks on during a wrestling match at the state finals Feb. 24 in Kalamazoo.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

MHSAA looks to tackle officiating shortage

By: Timothy Pontzer | C&G Newspapers | Published March 2, 2018

 A referee drops the puck during a Feb. 28 game between Orchard Lake St. Mary’s and Warren Mott. Hockey has suffered a shortage of officials due to the skating element.

A referee drops the puck during a Feb. 28 game between Orchard Lake St. Mary’s and Warren Mott. Hockey has suffered a shortage of officials due to the skating element.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

METRO DETROIT — Referees are rarely a fan favorite.

Many officials draw ire and consternation from the stands regardless of the sport. Some of the loudest cries from supporters on a fall Friday night aren’t in response to a touchdown, but rather what is deemed to be a missed holding call or some other penalty.

While the frustration from those in the crowd toward those with the whistles is nothing new, it has led to a trend. A decade ago, the Michigan High School Athletic Association enjoyed its highest-ever enrollment of officials at 12,400. Today, the number sits at just over 10,000.

“It’s a big dip,” said MHSAA Assistant Director Mark Uyl. “We certainly have some really tight shortages in certain pockets of our state and in certain sports. For example, soccer is one where we’re really trying to recruit that very, very hard. In ice hockey and wrestling, it’s a challenge. Hockey has the obvious skating component, and both sports have a pool of officials where they almost exclusively did that sport growing up.”

Uyl also mentioned lacrosse as an example where the growth of officials is not close to matching the growth of the sport itself. He said the reason for the shortage is twofold and isn’t limited to a local scale.

“It’s a nationwide problem, not just a Michigan predicament. Honestly, every athletic organization at every level is facing this,” Uyl said. “If you go back 50 to 60 years and chart our numbers, it’s tied to economic times. We had record highs of officials in the late 2000s when it was a dark economic time. Ten years later, certainly things aren’t perfect, but the economy is doing fairly well.”


Under the microscope
Uyl said the MHSAA must be creative when promoting putting on the stripes as a part-time gig. The obvious financial benefit serves as the biggest drive in enrollment, but he explained that the constant jeers from the crowd harm numbers as well.

“We’ve surveyed our former officials four times over the past 15 years, and we ask the reasons for why they got out,” Uyl said. “The top two reasons each time are a change in their job or family status, which are both out of control. However, the third and fourth reason each time has been a lack of sportsmanship from coaches and the same lack from parent spectators.”

Instances where officials are followed out to the parking lot or harassed on social media are cited as a reason for retiring the whistle.

“These are the things we do have some influence and control over,” Uyl said. “What’s sad is it has nothing to do with players or kids — it’s really the behavior of adults that’s the biggest turnoff to our officials. It shows us that improving sportsmanship needs to remain our highest priority.”

St. Clair Shores Lake Shore Athletic Director John Hartley has been an official since he was in college.

He agreed that family and careers are major reasons why some officials leave, as well as the lack of sportsmanship from fans.

“Watch an NFL, NBA, MLB or high-profile college game. Every call or noncall is under scrutiny with replay systems, and every sports highlight dealing with officials is always from a negative aspect,” he said. “The general fan views officials as being a robot now, which eliminates the human element for error, which is always going to happen. That trickles down with spectators filming high school games and posting on social media sites. It’s just not worth the (money) for some people.”


Make or break years
Uyl said the average age of an MHSAA official is 48. In active sports like hockey, basketball and soccer, that age is a bit lower. Meanwhile, in sports like track and swimming, that age ticks a little higher. The total number of referees in the state is actually 16,000, but that counts for each sport. Of the 10,000 in the workforce, a little more than half are registered to make calls in multiple sports.

“The challenge really is getting an official through the first three years,” Uyl said. “It’s crazy, but the real problem happens when starting out at the sub-varsity level. You get these inexperienced coaches and parents that are treating a seventh-grade game like it’s the seventh game of the World Series or NBA Finals. For that brand-new official who doesn’t have the experience with criticism, it can be tough.”

The data shows those first three years serve as a make-or-break period.

“Once an official gets past those three years, the yelling goes in one ear and out the other,” Uyl said. “If an official works through that, we tend to keep them for a while, giving them a 10-year award and usually a 20-year award and beyond.”


Students don the stripes
To help combat the problem, Uyl oversees the MHSAA’s Legacy Program, a setup that allows current high school students to don the stripes. Additionally, the MHSAA has partnered with over 100 state high schools and many two- and four-year universities to establish officiating classes.

Established over three decades ago, the Legacy Program currently boasts over 100 students, with some years bringing in over 200. Uyl said each sport has legacy officials and said nearly one in 10 of the current officiating group started in the program.

“It’s a great way to get our brand and message out there,” Uyl said. “It’s a great way for kids to stay in sports and make some extra money, actually a lot more than you’d make flipping burgers or waiting tables. It allows kids who play a sport currently to learn more about it and call games at the sub-varsity level. It also allows kids to reconnect with a sport that they maybe played growing up but dropped once in high school.”

Students shadow under a mentor official, with the ability to make roughly $100 for a junior high doubleheader or around $50 for a single high school game. Due to the MHSAA’s conflict of interest policy, current students never call varsity games where they attend.

“Kids are able to make more than $20 an hour around sports and staying active,” Uyl said. “We see it as perfectly acceptable for students to work middle school and even freshman games where they attend; we draw the line at junior varsity.”

A senior at Farmington High, Christian Smith is in the program. A four-year varsity basketball player for the Falcons, he will continue his career on the hardwood next year at Northwood University. Before working with the MHSAA, Smith started umpiring baseball and softball games at 11 years old. He also officiates Amateur Athletic Union basketball games in the summer. He aspires one day to serve as an NBA referee.

“I love officiating and have always wanted to do it from a young age,” Smith said. “One of my biggest challenges as a young official is getting respect. Automatically when I step on the floor, I know I’m at a disadvantage because my age speaks for itself. For coaches who don’t know me, it’s a rough start to the game. For the ones who know me, they know the game will go on with little to no problems. Sometimes I’ve had to be escorted out of AAU games because I received threats from parents and coaches. You would think something like that would phase me, but sadly it’s normal, and I’ve grown accustomed to it.”

Warren Mott senior Krystal Donald is a member of the varsity soccer team. She has served as a legacy official in volleyball matches and has plans to do the same on the pitch.

“I like doing it with the other refs and making sure I’m making the right calls,” Donald said. “I like interacting with the teams and seeing what each of them bring to the court. The biggest challenge is making sure the calls are right and everyone is happy. I’ve gotten angry parents and coaches before, but I have to make the call I think is the right one to make it fair.”

In addition to the Legacy Program, Uyl said new recruits have come from both college students and former varsity parents.

“It’s funny; we’ve had a lot of success with what I call athletic empty nesters. It’s moms and dads who had their kids graduate, and now they’re in their mid to late 40s after going to games eight or nine years straight,” Uyl said. “That time quickly comes to an end, but they know the game and sport quite well. Getting a new official with that age is also a benefit because the person yelling from the fourth row doesn’t rattle the person as much as it would an 18-year-old.”

Uyl said “college kids” can work at the varsity level and that there have been a fair number who use it as their main job while in school.

“The challenge is when they graduate and start a career and families,” Uyl said. “We then get some of those people back after they’re established in their career and their families are a little older, and they can pick up where they left off.”


For the health of the game
The son of a high school referee, Uyl began his career with the MHSAA as a legacy official in 1991. After graduating from Grand Rapids Caledonia in 1992, he called football, basketball and baseball for over a decade before moving to his current role. He also currently serves as a baseball umpire for the Big Ten. While he understands that a game can always feature a missed call, he pleaded with fans to have perspective.

“We want folks to understand that there’s a shortage (in officials) and they can be involved,” Uyl said. “If somebody doesn’t want to pick up a whistle, they can still help the cause by maybe giving the guy in the striped shirt the benefit of the doubt at the next game they go to. They can realize that the more you scream and holler, it’s hurting our efforts to retain officials.

“I just hope that people would realize that without quality officials, the kids are the ones that suffer, and that underneath that striped shirt is an actual human being doing their best.”