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Fan, athlete aggression contributing to school sports official shortage

Increasing violence toward school sports officials is contributing to a national and local referee shortage.

SPRING GROVE, Pa. — Increasing violence toward school sports officials is contributing to a national and local referee shortage, according to industry officials.

The shortage is especially critical in smaller sports, like soccer, volleyball, and field hockey. Lack of officials in those sports has led to rescheduled varsity games and even cancelled JV games.

In an already demanding job, many sports officials are now five to six days a week, often in addition to their regular full-time jobs.

“They’ll tell you, it’s tiring," Melissa Mertz, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, Inc. (PIAA) said. "Some of them are exhausted because they’re just working so much." 

One of the reasons fewer people want to referee is the increasing aggressiveness of fans, athletes, and their families, according to Mertz.

Illustrating the danger posed to school sports officials, a Spring Grove Area High School football player attacked an official during a game recently. The player knocked down the official and punched him once in the head before being pulled off.

“It’s a perfect example of... the factor that’s added in to the shortage of officials," Mertz said. "People don’t want to put up with the abuse and certainly not be tackled by a player." 

Add on longer hours, licensing fees, an aging workforce, and the COVID-19 pandemic, refereeing doesn’t seem like a particularly glamorous job.

“There's always that factor in the back of their mind when you have a disruptive student athlete or you have a parent, there's always a chance of these things occurring,” Chuck Abbott, executive director of York Adams Interscholastic Athletic Association (YAIAA) said. 

Many referees have been working for decades and don’t see the benefit anymore, Abbott said. He hopes the field will adapt to recruit a new generation of sports officials.

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