High school game officials in short supply this spring

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Mike Lowe, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·8 min read
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Apr. 17—Dick Goan has assigned umpires for high school and middle school softball games in southern Maine for the past 30 years.

As recently as 2017, he had a pool of 90 umpires to work with. This spring, it's down to 56 — with just one new recruit.

"We are short-handed," said Goan, 84, who umpired games himself until turning 80. "It's universal. I don't care who the assigners are. You will find it in every sport in Maine. There's no question the numbers are low."

As the spring sports season gets underway at Maine high schools, the ranks of game officials are perilously thin. The number of referees and umpires have been declining for the past decade in Maine and across the nation, and the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated that trend.

Some sports might not have enough officials to cover all games, particularly if the schedule is heavy on given days because rainouts have forced rescheduling.

"Everybody is worried about the number of officials," said Jeff Benson, the commissioner of officials for the Maine Principals' Association and a baseball umpire. "We just didn't have time to recruit anyone this year. We couldn't get into our usual venues, such as schools and such, where we recruit new officials."

Baseball and softball appear to have just enough umpires to get through a regular season, barring illness or injuries.

Lacrosse, however, could be a different story. The girls' game has nearly critical numbers.

"It's going to be real tight," said Barbara Snapp, the girls' lacrosse officials liaison to the MPA. "Our numbers are down, but I do know we had some new people come in."

According to Sue Perkins, a lacrosse official whose husband, Tom, assigns officials for girls' lacrosse games across the state, the Maine Women's Lacrosse Officials Association has 62 officials, but that includes 10 newcomers who have never officiated a varsity game before. Typically, she said, they would have between 70 and 80 officials.

"It's a lot scary," said Perkins. "It's one of those things that, when our board people get together, this keeps us awake. How are we going to fill all our games?"

Perkins, who officiated soccer in the fall but chose not to referee basketball games this winter, said losing the 2020 spring season at the start of the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on the number of officials.

"Some people are just done," she said. "When you take a year off you might realize, 'I don't need this.' You recognize that there's life after officiating, that there's something better to do with your afternoons. Some people are not coming back because they're worried about bringing (COVID-19) back to their families. With the vaccinations, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, so maybe they'll come back next year. Just not now."

Perkins noted that middle school teams are not playing games this year and that schedule makers have spread the games out. That will help alleviate some concerns. But games postponed by inclement weather could cause problems because they might be rescheduled for a day when other games are already planned.

"Weather is going to be a factor," Perkins said.

That will also be the case with boys' lacrosse. Jeff Howes, the statewide assigner for boys' lacrosse, said his sport is in better shape, with about 100 officials. "The problems come if weather complicates things," he said.

Howes noted that the Maine Lacrosse Officials Association lost only two members specifically because of COVID-19 concerns. There are about seven new officials coming in, but they would be used only in sub-varsity games.

Howes isn't certain why the boys' game has more game officials than girls' lacrosse. He noted that they do a lot of recruiting of officials from other high school sports.

"We've always had pretty good recruiting from the hockey side," said Howes. "The sports are pretty similar so I think we've got a little easier track with those officials to become acclimated to lacrosse."

Dave Berrang, a 61-year-old Portland resident who has officiated girls' lacrosse for 10 years, has a theory about why the girls' game has fewer officials.

"This is not a mature sport," Berrang said before he officiated a preseason scrimmage at Biddeford's Waterhouse Field. "Every year, new programs are added. And you're always outpaced on the team side versus the officials side."

In 1998, when the MPA first sponsored lacrosse, there were 15 girls teams across the state. This year there are 49, including three new teams. The boys' game also has grown, from 23 teams in 1998 to 51 now.

Baseball and softball appear to be in better shape than girls' lacrosse, but just barely.

For example, the Western Maine Baseball Umpires Association has, according to rules interpreter Kevin Joyce, 93 umpires, which includes nine new ones. "Ninety is the cutoff," he said, noting that rainy weather "is where we start to scramble."

In central Maine, softball assigner Paul Beauparlant said he has 33 umpires to serve 17 schools. Most sub-varsity games, he said, will have only one umpire. For the Central Maine baseball board, assigner Larry Larochelle said he has around 50 umpires for 22 schools.

'THIS IS NOT JUST A MAINE PROBLEM'

The shrinking roster of game officials has been plaguing high school sports across the country for several years now.

In 2017, the National Association of Sports Officials conducted a survey of over 17,000 sports officials from all levels of competition and all sports. Seventy percent of officials quit by the end of their third year. Of those, 75 percent said they quit because of verbal abuse from spectators, often parents.

Last fall, at the start of the pandemic, the National Federation of State High School Associations noted in a release that Minnesota had lost about half its officials, Michigan was down 30 percent and Missouri 15 percent.

"This is not just a Maine issue," said Mike Burnham, executive director of the Maine Principals' Association. "There's a significant shortage of officials across the country. And the pandemic doesn't make it easier."

In the past, the MPA has run television and radio ads attempting to recruit new officials as part of a nationwide effort by the national federation.

"This goes across all of our sports," Burnham said. "We have a number of people who chose not to work this year, and if they don't come back to work in another year, we're looking at serious officials shortages in all our sports. Obviously, we're doing a recruitment campaign, but it does take a while for (newcomers) to get comfortable officiating, starting at the lower levels and working up to the varsity level."

Because of the pandemic, Maine has been experiencing a shortage of officials the entire 2020-21 school year, even with modified schedules with fewer games and no postseason tournaments.

In the winter, the Western Maine Board of Approved Basketball Officials lost 50 referees from the year before. In central Maine, about 40 percent of that board's crew did not return. In ice hockey, the number of registered high school officials in Maine dropped from 80 to 52.

In the fall, the Western Maine Board of Approved Soccer Officials was down over 50 percent from the previous year while volleyball, which got bumped to a wedge season between the winter and the fall, was down 25 percent.

Age is certainly a factor. According to the MPA's Benson, the median age of game officials in Maine is 54. And while some officials have likely received COVID-19 vaccinations, in the winter and fall they didn't have that option. Many officials didn't work because they feared not just exposing themselves, but family members as well.

Benson said anyone interested in becoming an official should contact him via email: He would then put them in touch with the appropriate officials in whatever sport they're interested in joining.

"I actually had two guys contact me out of the blue the other day," he said. "They connected through the national federation website."

To become a high school official requires a complete background check (including fingerprinting), multiple rules interpretation meetings and annual tests.

Lacrosse officials are paid $78 for varsity games, $55 for junior varsity games; baseball umpires make $68.50 for varsity games, $48 for junior varsity games; softball umpires receive $66 for varsity games, $46.50 for junior varsity games. Officials also receive mileage reimbursement for traveling to and from games.

"We are trying to bring more people into it," Burnham said. "I would hate to see opportunities taken away from the kids because we don't have enough officials to do the game."

Jeremy Anderson, a girls' lacrosse official from Portland, said it is important to know that the shortage of officials is affecting all sports, not just the one he does.

"All sports are short," said Anderson, who also officiates field hockey. "It's a whole community thing. We need more people to referee all sports because we can't do them all."