referee

There is a slight problem with middle school and high school athletics in Tennessee.

It’s not the competition, which remains at a level commensurate (or better) with what has come to be expected of the Volunteer State over the last two-plus decades. The athletes in this state are on an ever-improving trajectory, which jibes with the second point—that the wild influx of people moving to Tennessee is offering more secondary-school athletic opportunities than we’ve ever seen.

Not only are varsity rosters filled to capacity, with more chances than ever afforded to young athletes to play at the highest possible levels the schools can offer, the trickle-down effect offers more developmental opportunities—from junior varsity stretching back into B- or C-teams at certain middle schools.

Each of these things, taken at face value with no other contingencies, should be lauded as what they are, which is providing opportunities for student-athletes that, in the past, would either have been truncated or nonexistent.

Two decades ago, or perhaps even less, there were simply fewer roster spots available to give young folks the chance to flex their athletic prowess at the scholastic level—a level that is both entry and only level for many, given how expensive travel ball can be and the cultural curio that is the modern AAU program, particularly surrounding basketball.

The interscholastic game that lives on in schools, with rivalries handed down from generation to generation, parents and grandparents watching their own kids and grandkids play on many of the same fields they once trod, can be an antiquated notion to some but remains alive and well in rural as well as metro communities. There is pride at stake. And what is threatening these community touchstones—Friday night football games, springs in Murfreesboro—is not some kind of cultural boondoggle or fighting amongst the haves how best to exclude the have-nots.

It's a lack of officials. Across all sports, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) is hurting for people to referee the games. It has been a problem long coming—and not even particularly unique to Tennessee—but it is here. And it has to be addressed. Quickly.

“If the trend continues, there will be games that will not be played,” said TSSAA Assistant Executive Director of Officials Gene Menees. “It’s getting to the point now, when a baseball or softball team has a game rained out, you can’t just call or email the assigner and say, ‘Hey, we moved the game.’ You have to call and find out if they have enough umpires to cover the game if it’s moved.”

Already, the TSSAA has made the call to move a select number of high school football games from Friday to Thursday night in 2022. This was done with one goal in mind: having enough officials to get the job done across the state. And this was not the first idea the governing body has attempted to get officials into arenas, but another step in an increasingly desperate bid to stay ahead of the game.

“We’ve had supervisors and assigning officers contacting colleges and universities, offering part-time jobs,” Menees said. “There are parts of the state we’ve done radio ads. We’ve put it in newspapers and on social media. I’m sure it’s all helped some, but still we’re running really short on game officials, to the extent our board of control recently approved the moving of a certain number of high school football games from Friday night to Thursday night so we have enough officials to cover the games each week.”

Joe Blair, Athletic Director at Brentwood High School, has seen this repeatedly. So much so that in March, he took to social media after seeing another game lost to lack of officials.

“You could talk to five different people and get five different viewpoints,” Blair said when asked for his thoughts on the shortage. “I don’t think there’s one single, ‘Hey, here’s the problem.’ And until we start addressing these problems and how they paint the overall picture, the issue will continue to grow.”

Both Blair and Menees acknowledged that recruiting and retention are major factors—as older officials begin to step away from the game, fewer and fewer of the next generation are able or willing to take the mantle from them. Blair, who got his start at Brentwood as the wrestling coach, still sees many of the same faces refereeing matches he saw 20 years ago.

Menees pointed to a pending, across-the-board raise in rates for game officials but couldn’t help but point out that the best officials are getting poached for work at the collegiate level—reasonably, he points out, given that an official can make anywhere from $180 to $3000 per night at the college level, rather than slightly above $100 for prep work.

The economics can’t be changed to a great degree, but far more concerning for both the school administrator and the state athletics representative is how many people, either after a few seasons as an official or even before they even get too far into considering it as an option, are put off by fan behavior. No one reading this has gone their entire athletic event-attending life without seeing a fan make a spectacle of themselves heckling an official, and at the high school level, with smaller crowds and personal relationships with many of the folks charged with keeping peace and order, fans are emboldened in ways that are not helping the ref-retention situation.

There is plenty of blame to share among all for how we got here, but a resolution is what matters most.

“The officials sometimes accept too much abuse,” Menees acknowledged. “No one comes to a game to listen to an adult say and do whatever they want. [But] in a lot of cases, administrators know which fans are capable of acting up. It amazes me, and I don’t mean this as a comparison between athletics and academics, but in the classroom you won’t allow students to act up or act out—and they shouldn’t—but when a ball is involved, there’s suddenly less accountability in some places.”

Blair acknowledged that the culpability lies with everyone, and that shifting attitudes and behaviors could likely go a long way not only to aiding the officiating crisis but making the entire experience more pleasant.

“We have to change our attitudes, as athletes, coaches and fans, and understand the expectations and purpose at the high school and middle school level,” he said. “We’re trying to help kids grow up and find an opportunity to get involved in something. If they can go on to compete at the next level, that’s great; but the majority of kids at [this] level won’t be that person. Ultimately, what we’re trying to teach them is the right way to handle what they’re doing and the right way to enjoy being a part of the sport.”

Among the tragedies being combatted here—the lack of bodies, the loss of games, the loss of opportunity—is that, per Menees, the state really does have some incredible officials at its disposal. His challenge is keeping them on the field, and getting more—and, he says, if you’re interested, get in touch with the TSSAA by phone or email, because they are also interested in you.

“They’re all dedicated,” he said. “They work hard. I’ve told coaches, if you have a young umpire or a young official, no matter the sport, who comes and works your game, just let them work. The more they stay off a young official, the more likely they are to come back. We encourage our more veteran officials to step up and help a young official, come to their defense, tell the coaches to back off and let the younger officials work, and hopefully that will help keep some of them around a little bit longer as well.”