Jul. 10—The upcoming high school football season in northwest Ohio should not be impacted by a shortage of game officials.
That is the good news.
Within perhaps three or four seasons, however, it could be a different story.
Simply put, the Northwest District Football Officials Association is losing members each year, and is not replacing them at a sustainable rate.
At the present rate of attrition, there might not be enough qualified personnel to officiate all of these area games, and some leagues might need to move games off their treasured Friday night stage.
"We're losing officials faster than we can get officials," said Mark Kuhn, a 16-year high school football official and baseball umpire. "That's the problem. Coming up on this varsity football season, we're potentially losing 25 guys.
"In our association, we have 140 officials. If we go down to 115, that is a significant loss. It's just hard to get people to sign up and take the class."
Kuhn has seen a drop in the numbers of prospective officials signing up to take the classes he teaches, which are necessary to begin officiating.
"In four to five years, if we continue at this rate, we'll be hurting," he said. "Some schools will have to start moving games to Saturdays or Thursdays, and some guys will be working more varsity games in a week. Moving games off of the traditional Friday night is not what people want."
What is the level of concern from athletic administrators?
"It's my No. 1 concern moving forward because we've seen it in other sports," said Northern Lakes League commissioner Richard Browne, who assigns officials for games in the NLL. "We're probably a lot closer [to a shortage] in volleyball and soccer, but football is certainly on the horizon now."
Kuhn serves as the new officials class instructor and rules interpreter for the NDFOA, and is also a board member. He works in similar capacities in baseball for the Wood County Umpires Association.
"I think we're good for now," Kuhn said of having enough football officials for 2021, "but we are very close to having that issue. In baseball, we did have that issue late in the season coming into the summer games.
"Even late in the high school season, we had some [junior varsity, freshmen, junior high] games with just one umpire. All of the varsity games were covered. But, that situation isn't getting any better either."
Why are the numbers declining?
"There's multiple reasons for it," said Browne, who has worked as a high school basketball official for 28 years. "One of them is behavior from fans. That's probably No. 1. Nobody likes to get yelled, screamed, hollered at on a Friday night, or other nights, depending on the sport.
"Officials' pay has something to do with it, but I don't think that is an overwhelming reason. It comes back to the fan behavior."
The steady uptick in vocal criticism from spectators — primarily from parents of players — does not sit well with the recipients of the anger.
"I just think times are changing," Kuhn said. "The younger guys don't like to hear a lot of the stuff that's coming out of the stands. They struggle with that. When I'm teaching the class, I make it well known that they should call me when they have issues at a game. And, we have a few other mentors they can call. We try to talk the guys off the ledge. But, we'll have guys call and say, 'I'm just not going to deal with it.'
"For the amount of money you get paid as a high school official, you're not going to get rich off of it. It's more that you have to love the sports to do it. When it's not pleasant to walk on a field, that's where the problem is. It's a combination of that, and the amount of pay we get."
Kuhn said most varsity football officials, who work games in five-person crews, are paid $65 to $70 each for working a game. Most would look at this as roughly $25 per hour.
But, the reality is much less enticing from a monetary standpoint.
On some game nights, crews could drive an hour or more one way to the venue, and are required to arrive 90 minutes before the scheduled 7 p.m. kickoff. With the evolution of pass-oriented spread offenses, games that used to take around two hours or 2:15 to complete now often run 2:45 or even three hours.
From departure time to their return home, officials may invest around seven hours to work their assigned games, turning the $70 fee into a $10-an-hour side hustle.
NDFOA officials work games primarily in the immediate Toledo area. But, their domain includes the entire northwest corner of the state — serving the City League, NLL, Three Rivers Athletic Conference, Northern Buckeye Conference, Toledo Area Athletic Conference, Northwest Ohio Athletic League, Blanchard Valley Conference, and the Sandusky Bay Conference.
This can send some crews as far east as Mansfield, as far south as the Lima area, and west to the Indiana border, although other smaller associations closer to Mansfield, Lima, and Defiance are able to help fill games in those areas.
Kuhn and Browne acknowledged that the more experienced veteran football crews typically have fewer serious issues with the verbal abuse from the parents and other fans at games. That is mainly because they have adapted to it, and the fact that being on the field — at least 20 or more yards away — serves as a sound buffer.
"It's white noise at football games for guys that have been doing it for a while," Kuhn said. "But, the newer guys hear it. You tell them not to listen, but you can't help but listen.
"The fans are horrible in baseball. I've been doing baseball for 16 years, and it's as bad as it's ever been. During this past high school season, I was getting calls almost daily from guys who had been in my class. They were asking me if this was normal, or what they should do if this happens. The parents are just bad."
All officials have to start somewhere, and the reality is that they learn to work games on the field. This is after taking the mandatory 30 hours of classes, and passing a test to become eligible to work Ohio High School Athletic Association games.
Most of these candidates are younger — recently graduated from high school — and each is required to work games below the varsity level for two seasons. At that point, they are retested to earn approval to become Class 1 officials qualified to work varsity games.
Kuhn estimates the average age of an official in the NDFOA is around 50. The youngest members are around 20, and the oldest in their early 70s.
"It's the lower-level games where there's problems," Brown said. "There's fewer people at those games, but the people seem to be more vocal, or at least seem to be heard. That's where newer officials get discouraged in the first couple years.
"There's a number of people who take the class and, within a few years, less than 20 percent of them are being retained. They realize that it's not as fun as they thought it would be, or it didn't turn out like they thought it would."
Kuhn echoed Browne's take on this timing.
"Our biggest loss of officials is in their first couple years," he said. "If I can get guys through their first couple years, usually we can get them to hang on a little bit longer. But, we're losing a lot of them right up front.
"I don't know that they're scared. They just don't want to go get beat down for two hours. There's stuff coming out of the stands that has nothing to do with the rules. I wish coaches and fans could go through a rules class."
Better awareness of sportsmanship might go a long way.
"When guys do have a bad game, or something happens out of the ordinary, they can call and talk to me or somebody else," Kuhn said. "Some of the leagues have put in some sportsmanship policies. I know that what the NLL has put in is working OK. Everybody is aware of it, but it's just different now. It's different times."
Browne believes a dose of basic empathy could help reverse the trend.
"The problem is, you are scrutinized on every single call, and we all have cellphones and are able to take videos," the NLL commissioner said. "Things get posted to social media, and you hear about the unfortunate incidents where adults are trying to track down officials after games to give them their 'opinion' of what they were calling that night.
"It's just gotten to this tipping point where people understand that this is just not a fun job anymore."
Fans in the stands are not the only source of frustration and anger directed at game officials. Often, head coaches and their staffs of assistants contribute to the combative dynamic.
"I 100 percent agree with that, and we have talked to our coaching staffs about this," Browne said. "We talk about it every year, and we have a sportsmanship conference at the the beginning of every school year. We want to talk about this to our student-athletes.
"We relay this message over and over to our coaches."
When coaches become demonstrative in expressing their frustration with calls made or not made by officiating crews, their behavior can serve to trigger additional angst from the folks behind them.
"The people in the stands feed off of what they see the coaches do," Browne said. "If a coach is down there berating an official, the fans are going to see that and react the same way.
Another negative factor that has led to a drop in the number of officials in some sports was the coronavirus pandemic.
"With the onset of COVID, there were a fair number of officials that just took the entire year off," Browne said. "They didn't feel safe with the situation, and rightfully so. Everybody had to make their own decision last year what they wanted to do, or didn't want to do.
"Once they got out of it for a year, maybe they realized they didn't miss it as much as they thought they would. They realized that there's other things they could be doing on a Friday night or a Saturday morning. All of a sudden, it isn't so attractive anymore."