Think high school football.
Think Friday night lights.
Think of a special gathering time and place for students, parents, alumni, and other supporters of athletes clad as colorfully as the leaves in the trees that surround the stadiums.
Think Thursday night, too?
Fans of the sport in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey might soon find out because officials on both sides of the river are pushing hard for more football teams to play on Thursday nights starting next season to account for a disturbing development: a shortage of officials.
“Something has to be done,” said Ernie Gallagher, a longtime assignor of officials for both the Philadelphia Public League and Philadelphia Catholic League as well as several youth leagues. “We’re having a problem covering all these games [on Friday nights], and it’s only going to get worse.”
In South Jersey, Lindenwold High athletic director Derryk Sellers, who is the president of the 95-school West Jersey Football League, has asked every school to schedule one Thursday night home game during the 2020 season.
“I’m pushing hard for it,” Sellers said. “I’m telling everybody at every meeting I go to, ‘Look around. We don’t have enough officials.’ ”
The scarcity of striped-shirted officials is not limited to Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey and not restricted to high school football. It’s impacting nearly every sport at nearly every level of competition in nearly every part of the country.
According to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state high school association had 16,533 registered officials to cover 13 sports during the 2018-19 school year. That was 1,132 fewer than five years ago, a downward trend that is accelerating as far more people opt to hang up the whistle rather than pick one up.
“It’s not at the dire point now, but it’s heading in that direction,” said PIAA assistant executive director Pat Gebhart, who oversees officials. “It’s hard to be optimistic about the future.”
In South Jersey soccer, assigner John Barna recently had to call 17 high schools on a Wednesday and tell administrators that he might not have enough officials to cover their Monday afternoon games.
“It’s simple math: Too many games, not enough officials,” Barna said.
Gebhart, Sellers, and others who are concerned with the situation say the primary reason for the growing shortage of officials is abuse from fans, particularly parents who lose perspective over the stakes of school-sponsored or youth-league games.
The National Federation of State High School Associations has launched an aggressive campaign designed to curb unruly behavior by parents at sporting events. The organization has created a video titled “The Parent Seat,” issued an op-ed by executive director Karissa L. Niehoff — in which she advised parents to “act your age” and “stay in your own lane” — and publicized a letter from a 20-year veteran soccer official who walked away from overseeing the sport.
“Soccer parents: you are absolutely 100 percent the reason we have a critical refereeing shortage,” wrote the official, who was not identified by the NFHS.
Gebhart said a recent NFHS study showed that around 80 percent of new officials give up the avocation after two years.
“Far and away the No. 1 reason is abuse by parents and coaches,” Gebhart said.
The reluctance of younger officials to stick around, combined with the annual decision by older officials to retire, has created a shortage that likely will only increase in the near future, jeopardizing the ability to stage games, officials say.
“Our average [umpire] in baseball is 67 years old,” Gallagher said. “Our average guy in softball is 63 years old. What happens when they walk away?”
Said Sellers: “You go to a football game, it’s a referee crew of 65-year-olds. It should be a crew of 30-year-olds.”
Harry McMichael, the assigner for the Camden County chapter of the New Jersey Football Officials Association, notes that his group’s enrollment numbers have been steadily dropping by around 15 to 20 members annually over the last few years. And he expects to lose even more in the near future, given the average age of his officials.
“We have 24 crews [of six men each], and 16 of them are all 60 and older,” McMichael said.
Barna said membership in the South Jersey Soccer Officials Association has dropped from 236 in 2011 to 179 in 2019, a 24 percent decrease.
Gerry DiGiovanni, who is the football rules interpreter for the PIAA’s District 1 as well as the referee assigner for the Ches-Mont and Central leagues, said the traditional pipeline of new officials has been choked at the youth level, where new whistle-blowers learn the ropes.
“The parents at Little League, CYO games, they are off the hook,” DiGiovanni said. “It’s crushing our feeder system.”
Said McMichael: “It’s out of control at the midget level. Guys get yelled at, followed to their car. They get fed up.”
DiGiovanni and others acknowledge that other factors also account for the shortage of officials, from a strong economy to the growing glut of games in a sport’s “offseason” such as fall baseball and spring soccer.
“A young couple, both working, they might not need the extra money,” DiGiovanni said.
On average, officials in most sports at the high school varsity level make $75 to $80 per game. Officials at the youth level make less per game but often can work multiple games at the same site in the course of the same day.
The PIAA has been trying to recruit more officials, sending posters to every high school encouraging students to serve as youth-league officials and offering online courses to make it easier for folks to sign up. But the results have not been encouraging, Gebhart said.
“We’re trying to be positive, looking for solutions,” Gebhart said. “We’re always talking with administrators and coaches to try to convince kids to get involved.”
DiGiovanni, who has been a football official for 33 years, said fan abuse can be particularly daunting for younger officials without experience in dealing with coaches and spectators.
“I had a game the other day [Ridley vs. Marple-Newtown] and I’m walking off, and a guy is waiting for me, and he’s yelling, ‘Hey, white hat, was this your first game?’ ” DiGiovanni said, referring to the white hat that signifies the chief of a football crew. “I looked at him and pretended to be shocked and said, ‘They weren’t supposed to tell anybody.’
“He didn’t know what to say. The other fans were laughing at him. But after years, you learn how to deal with people.”
Sellers said he actively promotes responsible behavior by parents who attend Lindenwold athletic events. He said other schools have taken similar steps, something that Gebhart has pushed in Pennsylvania and Neihoff has advocated from her national platform.
“It’s the era of entitlement,” Sellers said. “It’s not about using the game to learn a lesson and move on. It’s about screaming at the ref and making him not want to do it again.”
James Smith, president of the Central Philadelphia chapter of the PIAA basketball officials association, also has been involved with Cheltenham Little League baseball. He said the organization has trouble arranging for umpires for games with athletes 12 and younger.
“You used to get volunteers, but nobody wants to do that anymore,” Smith said. “Now you pay $25, and people still don’t want to deal with it.”
Larry White, the executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which oversees high school sports in the state, said the situation is so precarious that frequent cancellations might be common in the near future.
White said that, ironically, might lead to a solution.
“Sometimes, maybe you have to let things get to a critical mass,” White said. “In a couple years, guess what? We won’t have games, and then maybe the kids say, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, I can’t play because you ruined it.’