Kansas high schools face officiating shortage amid concerns of verbal abuse, poor treatment
A growing shortage of KSHSAA officials may threaten high school sports when classes resume this fall, and for communities across the state, it could spell uncertainty for coaches, parents and, specifically, students.
The sharp decline of registered officials isn’t new. KSHSAA’s active list of officials — those who are assigned to games across the state — has shrunk by nearly 20%, down to 4,619 from 5,700 since the 2011-12 school year.
Behavioral issues from coaches and parents have become a major instigator of the shortage. The scrutiny officials face — in-person and online — has become a growing issue with keeping new hires on staff, according to Francine Martin, assistant executive director at KSHSAA.
“The biggest reason that we hear from people not choosing to officiate has to do with verbal abuse,” Martin said. “And every time there is a negative experience that is exposed (on social media), whether it’s in Kansas or any other state, it makes people wonder about whether or not this is something they want to do as an avocation.”
KSHSAA officials must pass a certification process, attend a rules course and pass an open-book, written exam by a final rules meeting, which varies by sport. Those who pass are added to the register of officials, which has declined most significantly in basketball (27.3%), wrestling (20.4%) and soccer (18.9%) since the start of the 2011-12 academic year.
In 2020, Illinois-based officiating resource organization Officially Human conducted a survey of youth sports officials in 15 states, including Kansas. Poor treatment and verbal abuse were found as the top reasons for officials either quitting or deciding against registering, alongside unappealing assignments and equipment costs.
Jon Randle, the assistant director of intramural sports at KU and an official of more than 15 years, has witnessed the full landscape of issues during his career. Previously assigned an average of three games per week, Randle is up to at least five due to the decline in available officials.
Officials’ reluctance or even refusal to work at specific schools has become a growing trend, according to Randle.
“It’s become a situation where, ‘I went to X school, and the scrutiny was so much that I never want to go back to X school,’” Randle said.
“No matter if you’re working one game a week or 1,000 games a week, there’s always going to be scrutiny because of the role that you’re in. At the end of the day, you have to apply the rules on that sport fairly so that the athletes have a fair chance at competition.”
A part-time position as a KSHSAA official, which starts at $40 per game, has been a means of supplementary income for many adults who are retired or simply filling spare hours. But economic changes have allowed for alternative ways to pad checking accounts, such as delivery-app services and other contractor positions.
Becoming an official provides skills those positions can’t match, according to Randle.
“There is no better part-time job that you can find, period,” Randle said. “You can learn or develop any leadership skill that you could possibly imagine, whether it’s punctuality, communication or conflict resolution. Any type of leadership skill that you could possibly imagine, I promise you, you get put in that environment as a sports official.”
Another obstacle in recruiting new officials is the time inconvenience. Junior high games are often scheduled up to a few hours before or after the dismissal of the school day — an often inflexible timeframe for officials’ full-time work commitments.
An analysis spearheaded by John Dehan, owner and operator of Call the Game, a service that assigns officials within the Kansas City, Topeka, and Lawrence areas, showed that the available number of officials in the region is down due to verbal abuse and time commitments.
“It’s mainly been time,” Dehan said. “In Lawrence, I think they’re getting $60 per game for a middle school basketball game and that’s still not enough motivation.
“Lawrence is not too much different than Topeka, and Kansas City. What we’re trying to do in the Lawrence area is tap into the student population. But most young kids don’t want to work in (junior high and high school) sports because they don’t want to be yelled at.”
Alex Rottinghaus, 25, a risk management data analyst at Commerce Bank, has been officiating for KSHSAA since he signed up in 2017 while a student at Washburn. Rottinghaus started officiating middle school basketball games before moving up to varsity high school games just a couple of years later.
Although KSHSAA targets 18- to 25-year-olds, Rottinghaus is aware of the challenges facing students when they choose to be an official.
“It takes a lot of courage to jump into it at first,” Rottinghaus said. “But once you get into a rhythm and you’re comfortable, it’s really not that intimidating at all.”
Rottinghaus saw an opportunity for KSHSAA to address an official shortage during the start of the pandemic, when games were being played without fans. But the time commitment and mental strain remain an issue, and he suggested that increased compensation may help lead people into officiating.
“You’ve got to realize, a lot of these officials, pretty much all of them, are working eight or more-hour days and then driving up to an hour or two hours to officiate games and drive all the way back that night,” Rottinghaus said.
“So, when you have a shortage of officials, and officials doing that four or five days a week, that puts a lot of stress on the body, and I think that can lead to lower quality officiating.”
Despite what Rottinghaus said was prime timing for learning the role without pressure from spectators, Dehan lost a considerable number of officials due to the pandemic.
“I lost 30% of my staff with COVID,” Dehan said. “They just opted out of it. They just decided they didn’t want to work anymore because they were afraid to get sick. And out of that 30%, I’d say 90% of those people didn’t come back at all.”
The pandemic altered the conditions officials had become accustomed to, with regularly changing schedules and different mandates and restrictions from county to county. But since March, restrictions have leveled off across the country and schools are getting back to routines.
Martin, assistant executive director at KSHSAA, believes that presents an opportunity to regain the positive culture officiating can offer. But Randle, who doesn’t have kids, can empathize with parents who want to see their children succeed.
“The line that gets crossed a lot of the time is when I am so, like, tunnel-focused on ‘my child is losing a game’ that that now becomes somebody else’s fault — ‘it’s the fault of the officials,’” Randle said. “It’s not because the other team is better. It’s not because the opponents are better or they have better coaches or, ‘You know what? We just got our tail kicked today.’ It’s when fans and parents and spectators unfairly put that on the crew of the officials for the game.
“The tragedy in all of that is when the kids who are actually out there competing themselves, they’re no longer able to do that because of the actions and the comments and the behavior of the people in the stands. That’s not fair to the kids, to the student-athletes.”