TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) - Referees at all levels in Indiana are dwindling. Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) officials say it's become a noticeable trend, and the Wabash Valley is no exception.
There are 11,000 licensed, working officials, referees, or umpires throughout the state of Indiana at high school and lower levels. According to the IHSAA, many officiate multiple sports. Wrestling, football, volleyball, track and field, and swimming are the sports most affected by this shortage across the state.
Numbers for high school officials are slowly declining throughout the Hoosier State. IHSAA official and Assigner of officials for the Vigo County School Corporation Michael Stoffers says he sees it every night in our area.
"There's definitely shortages across the board on all sports in the area," he said, "On a given night in Vigo County, we need 26 officials just to cover lower-level games. We've certainly had to get creative to fill those spots."
"We are hurting for officials and it ends up hurting our student-athletes," IHSAA football and basketball referee Heath Hayes said, "Currently in Indiana, there's going to be football games moved to Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights because we don't have enough crews to cover all of the high school football games."
So why is this the case? Assistant Commissioner at the IHSAA Sandra Walter says a good economy is part of the reason. Many people don't need officiating as a side job anymore. However, after a recent IHSAA survey, there's a more pressing issue at hand.
"The valuable lessons we've learned from that survey is that, yes, the treatment of officials is a problem," she concluded.
"The number one reason that's given to us from officials is the behavior of the fans, coaches, and players during the games when they're being played," Stoffers agreed.
Hayes says that most often, poor treatment towards officials comes at the lower levels such as middle school and elementary school games. Since this is where young and first-time officials get their start, Hayes says this mistreatment tends to deter them.
"If somebody is screaming at them and yelling at them, they are apt to just quit and we can't retain them," Hayes continued.
To curb this problem, Walter says the IHSAA has really emphasized sportsmanship among fans. They have also started a mentor-mentee program among officials.
Young people who are interested in officiating can get a free license. Once they do and pass their tests, they are assigned a mentor from where they live. That mentor gives them feedback and works to develop them for two to three years.
Walter says it's an important program to help people remember that officials are members of your community.
"These are doctors, plumbers, bus drivers, and dentists," she said, "People love them during the day when they fix their broken garages. But then the same person dons the whistle and the striped shirt and for some reason, they become the enemy and I think we need to get beyond that."
As it stands, the average age of current IHSAA officials is 56. All three believe these steps can lead to more interest in officiating by the younger generation.
"There are currently more 60-year-olds refereeing sports than there are 30-year-olds," Hayes concluded, "As these 60-year-olds age out, there's nobody replacing these guys. That's what people need to understand. Without officials, it's just intramurals.
For more information on becoming an IHSAA official, you can visit here: https://ihsaa.org/Officials