Referee shortage impacting high school, junior high sports in Texas

State & Regional

AUSTIN — High school and middle school sports like football are in a dire need of officials throughout Texas. 

According to the Texas Association of Sports Officials, almost 20 percent of its members from 2016-17 didn’t return for the 2017-18 year. 

“I think what’s causing [the shortage] is younger people’s inability to be yelled and screamed at maybe,”

Wayne Elliott, executive secretary of the Austin Football Officials Association, said.  “They don’t know how much time we put into this. They just take things too seriously. Coaches are coaches. They’re going to yell and that’s just part of it. You can’t take it personally.” 

Elliott is on his 41st year of working as a referee. He started when he was 20 years old. It was common to start young when he first became a referee, but that’s not the case anymore. 

“We really want to get young guys in,” he said. “We have a nice 40 or 50 people in a rookie class every year, but the majority of those rookies are in their 40s and it’d sure be nice to see some 20-year-olds coming out to start. If you start when you’re 40 or 45, you’re going to have a 10 or 15-year career and you’re going to be gone. We need people that are going to do this, love it and are going to do it for life.” 

Metro areas like Austin often have enough officials, but they’re a vital resource for other parts of Texas. 

“If you’re in Brownwood, Abilene or San Angelo, you can go to a rookie meeting for the first time Monday night and work a varsity football game Friday night because they don’t have any bodies,” Elliott said. “We have helped the last several seasons [in] San Angelo, Brownwood and Abilene.” 

The Texas Association of Sports Officials sends out a survey to all members that don’t return. Michael Fitch, executive director of the association, said survey responses show scheduling conflicts are also an issue that makes it hard to retain referees.  

“Those we understand,” he said. “That’s just part of life.” 

But Fitch says the conduct of players, coaches and fans toward referees are also a contributing factor to the shortage. 

Mark Hughes, district one director for the Texas Association of Sports Officials, said both referees and coaches are working to change that culture. 

“In the past few years, we’ve spent a lot more time getting coaches and officials to understand each other, kind of mingle a little bit, get to know each other and respect each other a little bit more,” he said. 

The time commitment gets challenging for officials, but Hughes said it’s worth it. 

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best game in the country to be a part of,” he said. 

The association has a program called STaRT, which stands for “Students Today Are Referees Tomorrow.” It allows student-athletes who may not move on to play at the college level to stay involved by becoming a sports official. 

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