Abuse from fans among reasons for football official shortage in western Colorado
August 14, 2017
With most Colorado high schools hosting their first football practices yesterday, the excitement for a new season also brings some anxiety about the decline in the number of officials available for game assignments, stretching from Paonia to Rangely to Grand Junction.
The problem matches a nationwide trend linked in significant part to verbal abuse of officials.
According to Steve Cable, the former Glenwood Springs athletic director and a member of the Three Rivers Football Officials Association for the past 30 years, it's been tough the last few years to find enough qualified officials for not just varsity football games on Friday nights, but junior varsity, middle school and youth football games throughout the week.
"We're spread thin right now," Cable said. "We're going to have trouble covering some varsity games due to the number of games in our immediate area, as well as other places needing an officiating crew, but the biggest problem right now seems to be getting enough adequate coverage for things like junior varsity and middle school games. It's tough for us to get to those games because they're happening at 4 p.m. and we just don't have enough guys available."
The association will head into the 2017 season with just 39 officials on hand, not all of whom are officially certified for varsity competition.
The dip in numbers could be attributed to many things, from officials aging to the demands the job adds to one's personal life — but the larger issue seems to be the verbal abuse that comes with the job.
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"It's important for parents, coaches and players to remember that these officials are here for the kids," longtime Glenwood football coach Rocky Whitworth said. "I think the verbal abuse is definitely a factor in the declining numbers, especially for younger officials who might not be used to being out in front of people like that.
"Officiating is one of those deals where coaches and players spend hundreds and hundreds — if not thousands — of hours preparing for games, so it's important to them. Parents are obviously directly tied into that, so it's hard to stay quiet, but it's something we have to do and have to respect the job officials are doing."
The shortage means some Western Slope teams this fall could have to change the dates of home games to a Thursday night or Saturday afternoon to accommodate officiating crews.
That alone is concerning for coaches and athletic directors, who wouldn't know they'd need to move up or push back the dates of games until the week before, which could throw off travel for the visiting schools, as well as volunteers needed on and off the field.
"It's going to be tough for every school that might have to do that, particularly coaches," said Rifle athletic director Troy Phillips, who is assigned football officials from Grand Junction. "Coaches are used to having a set day that they play on and a time that they prepare for, so a schedule that could get thrown into a wacky situation, whether it's home or away, is something we'll just have to deal with. It may just have to be something we have to do until we get more officials."
A study of high school officials' numbers from 2009-2016 by the Coloradoan newspaper this year found that the state had a peak of 918 football refs in 2012-13 season but just 840 for 2015-16.
Seventy-eight officials lost in that three-year window might not seem like that much, but with the addition in that period of 10 schools to Colorado High School Activities Association competition, it's a trend that has grown increasingly alarming for the sport.
The Coloradoan cited burnout, abuse and low pay as part of the reason.
Baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey pay $58 per contest, which puts Colorado in the bottom 20 percent in the country in pay for those sports.
But the problem transcends Colorado.
Texas' storied high school football culture faces a "crisis." Oregon officials have said the same thing, and the Washington Post did a story about troubles in Virginia.
"On average, only two of every 10 officials return for their third year of officiating, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations," that story noted.
In the last decade or so, an emphasis has been placed on sportsmanship at the high school level, starting with athletic directors and working down to coaches, parents and players. Through that, some of the verbal abuse has subsided, but some fans won't keep quiet.
That can make the job more stressful than it needs to be, especially in small towns where fans personally know the officials and could say something to them about a call in public away from the field. Add in the fact that every official spends long hours on the road and gets little money, and it can drive younger officials away, Cable said.
"Officials who say they're in this for the pay would be lying to you," Cable said. "That's just not feasible. I could leave Glenwood at 4 p.m. on a Friday and head to Battle Mountain for a game and not get back until midnight. That's roughly $5 an hour. If you're in this business, it's because you love the game and have the passion to officiate games for kids. We're not seeing enough of that right now, and it's concerning."
Bill Zambelli, who has been an official in Western Pennsylvania and Colorado since the early 1970s, said that the two biggest reasons he sees the number of officials declining are that, "some people don't handle conflict well, because there's a lot of conflict on the football field, and people get a little nervous and uncomfortable about that, as well as the time and energy that is put into officiating."
Zambelli started officiating at the high school and college level in Western Pennsylvania after graduating from Thiel College in the early '70s, where he played football for the Tomcats. He added that it's important for new officials coming into the field to work as many games as possible because that's the only way to improve as an official.
Baseball, basketball and wrestling also have seen declines in the number of officials available in the state, while hockey is one of the few varsity sports to see an increase in the number of certified officials.
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