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'Where Are All the Refs?: Why Traditional Friday Night Games Are Now Being Played on Thursdays' by Ezekiel Akinbade, Prosser HS
 1/30/2023 12:00:00 AM

Ezekiel Akinbade
Prosser High School, Class of 2023

Like many other states, Washington is facing a sports crisis: a referee shortage. Many refs have left the profession with no plans of returning. One might cite the COVID-19 pandemic as a possible reason for this occurrence, as many industries saw a workforce decrease post-lockdown. But was the pandemic really to blame? Or is this a problem long in the making that COVID-era policies may have just exacerbated?

I have been a first-hand witness to the treatment of sports officials as a fan, a player, a coach, and as a referee myself. I officiated for over 40 flag football games, and there wasn’t a single game that I didn’t get chewed out by the parents. That’s to be expected; in the heat of the moment, pleasantries are often forgotten. However, these were second and third-grade games, in a rec league at that! Therein is the root of the problem: we, as sports fans, have accepted the reality of harsh treatment of officials at any level as “part of the culture.” This is the wrong approach, referees are human too, and while they make mistakes, their profession calls for a certain amount of integrity– a virtue that is rarely abandoned.

With over 400 WIAA-sanctioned games daily in need of officials, the responsibility of logistics and execution lies in the hands of the Washington Officials Association (WOA). From clinics to certifications to testing and payment, the WOA ensures the facilitation of high school sports in Washington.

I spoke with the WOA Executive director, Todd Stordahl, regarding officiating. According to Todd, a relatively new occurrence in the field is parents coming out of the stands “to confront players, coaches or officials.” Not only do these incidents disrupt the flow of the game, but they also pose a safety concern for all those involved. In the 20 years that Todd has worked in the WOA, the frequency of these altercations has risen from “every now and then” to almost a weekly basis. With this sort of treatment, it's no surprise that many officials might reconsider returning on a year-to-year basis.

To Todd, there’s always a need for more officials, but the pandemic atrophied the ranks. The association lost over 1600 members, going from 4800 to 3200. As we spoke, I realized Todd was more concerned about getting the right people in black-and-white stripes than hitting some arbitrary numerical goal. This sentiment exemplifies what is seen throughout his organization, a real commitment to quality. However, when you’re constantly short you don’t have the ability to pick the cream of the crop, instead you’re forced to take whoever is avaible to offiate. Naturally, this removes the inherent incentive for offficals to perform at their best since the association doesn’t currently have the most flexibility in job assignment.

As for recruitment, the WOA is trying to look to a more diverse and younger demographic. There are two specific goals moving forward: to shape the officiating body to look like it’s community and to tap into high schools for new recruits. Todd Stordahl asserts that diversification not only strengths the quality of offiating, but opens the doors for new members. A particular initiative the WIAA is pursuing is to partner with high school CTE programs so that students can try officiating and not only get paid but earn school credit.

One approach to improve conditions for officials has been the sportsmanship program, piloted by the Snohomish County Basketball league. Essentially, after games, officials submit a sportsmanship survey in which they rate players, game management, and coaching staff. It’s become a way to highlight positive official interactions. The program has shown much initial promise, and the WIAA hopes to roll a version out to the broader sports community soon.

Todd left me with one last message: you’ve all spent years in the stands or on the courts and fields next to us; after it’s all said and done, why don’t you give officiating a try? We’d all be better for it.

Remember, like fans, coaches, and players, officials are an essential part of the game. Be kind. Be gracious. Be empathetic. Thank a ref.

If you or anyone you know is thinking of officiating, visit https://www.woa-officials.com/.

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January 2023

1/30/2023 'Where Are All the Refs?: Why Traditional Friday Night Games Are Now Being Played on Thursdays' by Ezekiel Akinbade, Prosser HS

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