High school football: Shortage of officials altering schedules this fall

High school football: Shortage of officials altering schedules this fall

Altercations have increased across the nation. So has the verbal abuse officials, referees and umpires endure over the course of a high school event — particularly football.

A dose of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 18 months did not seem to soften spectators’ stances and coaches’ feelings over a judgment call last spring.

You can no longer mask the dwindling numbers of high school officials across the nation. As a result, Friday Night Football will have a limited amount of games this fall in the Pacific Coast Athletic League.

“We have eight crews,” Peninsula Sports Incorporated owner and President Tom Emery said. “There can be up to 14 games on any given weekend. We can’t cover all of them on Friday.”

To help de-escalate the problem, the PCAL did a lottery in which games have been moved to Thursday and Saturday this fall to avoid postponements or cancelations. A similar scenario occurred in 2019. Apparently other states are enduring similar shortages with officials.

The state of Nevada has gone from 1,350 officials in 2019 for all sports to roughly 300 this summer. In South Carolina, schools were informed that there aren’t enough qualified officials in one league for the Aug. 20 season openers.

The pandemic has not helped Emery in finding new officials. He lost five football officials and 15 for all sports. Peninsula Sports Incorporated officiates nine sports over the high school season.

“We still have guys on the fence about coming back,” said Emery, who has been officiating for 25 years. “This is not a job for the faint of heart. You need to be a little thick-skinned.”

For now Emery, who still officiates at 67, believes that he will be able to have five-man crews for up to eight varsity games a night, with a little over 60 total for football.

Yet, Emery pointed out that not all of his officials are qualified or have the training to officiate a varsity football game, meaning they will only officiate junior varsity, freshman and youth games.

“You can’t throw a first-year official into a varsity game,” Emery said. “And we have guys that do not do varsity games because they’re not qualified or capable.”

The biggest concern for Emery is he’s not landing enough new and younger officials to replace the ones he has lost. And the estimated time he gets a new official for lasts roughly two years.

The main reason? Verbal abuse.

“I spend the first two years trying to talk them off the ledge,” said Emery, who took over Peninsula Sports Incorporated in 2013. “You just can’t take someone off the street. We have to train them.”

Training is often year-round, with Emery feeling 20 hours of tutelage is needed before an official steps on the field. There is testing and evaluations.

“It’s a commitment,” Emery said. “Most have full-time jobs and families. It’s not minimum wage, but it’s not a lot when breaking down their drive time, arriving early and the event itself.”

When Emery loses an official, the reasons are obvious. Berated over the course of two hours weekly for 13 weeks takes its toll.

“Imagine sitting at home with your family and seeing a player blindside a white hat on television highlights,” Emery said. “Your wife looks at you and says, ‘You want to do this?’ ”

Age is a concern for Emery as well. Younger candidates aren’t beating down his door. He has one official who still does soccer at 77. Injuries creep up on older officials trying to keep up with the speed of a varsity high school football game.

“Some of the older guys can’t do more than two games a week,” Emery said. “Some of our crew chiefs officiate college football on Saturday. So we’re asking some of our officials to do JV games as well.”

Emery has officials for field hockey, wrestling, soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, volleyball and water polo as well.

Football has become the most challenging since the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League merged into the PCAL for football four years ago, creating 29 schools in four counties from King City to Gilroy.

Gone are the days where a school could call up Emery and tell them they want to change a date or add a game to the schedule.

“I used to stay up all night and worry about it,” Emery said. “But I no longer have nightmares of calling a school and telling them we can’t cover a game. I did the best I could.”

Thoughts of having four-man crews weren’t an option in Emery’s mind. As it is, his crews are already short two officials by NFL and college football standards, as both run out seven-man crews.

“Sometimes you’d like to turn around and tell a coach that was a bone-head call,” Emery said. “Obviously we don’t. But when we make a mistake, we get an ear full. We’re dead meat. Our goal is not to be noticed. When we make a mistake, it’s magnified. We’re human.

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