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Ernie Yarbrough is trying to do his part to stem the tide with a rising need of qualified high school sports officials.
Yarbrough, who coordinates officiating for the Georgia High Schools Association, has seen a potentially troubling trend of not being able to replace retiring game officials with young people who are qualified to do the same job.
The alternative to not keeping a pool of candidates to call games across all sports seasons is something that the assistant executive director for the GHSA does not like to envision.
“If we didn’t have sports officials, the games would be chaos,” said Yarbrough, who was a basketball referee for 32 years.
Right now, there’s enough game officials to go around for most sports, both at the varsity and subvarsity level, to survive.
However, there’s always room for younger officials who are interested in getting involved.
Current trends, according to Lanier Football Officials Association President Mark Staton, are that football officials are stepping down to a rate of replacement that’s ‘3 to 1.’
“I have a lot of respect for what the officials do,” West Hall football coach Krofton Montgomery said. “It’s a very tough job. Sure, they make mistakes, but they’re humans.”
However, the potential for a problem in staffing lingers across all sports seasons.
In softball, for example, the average age of the crew of 48 umpires who called games at the 2021 state tournament in Columbus was 54.8 years old, Yarbrough said.
The youngest in that group was 41.
Plus, a large chunk of softball officials do baseball during the spring.
Many of those game officials will likely be stepping away in the coming seasons.
“We’re just not getting younger folks who are interested in officiating,” Yarbrough said.
To accommodate for the rising need of game officials, the GHSA is taking a proactive approach to welcoming in young talent and trying hard to keep them on the field for many years to come.
One way to do that is better pay.
In Georgia, game officials make $120 each per football game for a crew of six in the regular season, while the GHSA pays out $70 for each basketball game, Yarbrough said.
And pay increases for officials is a topic that the GHSA takes up during the reclassification cycle every year years.
“We want game officials to know how valuable they are to the games and that they are appreciated,” Yarbrough said.
As a result, our state’s need for more game officials is not as dire as other pockets of the country.
Football is the sport with the highest number of officials needed.
With 420 GHSA member schools across the state, close to 200 will play at home on any given Friday night.
Since certain pockets of the state are not as well staffed as others, some schools have had to move games to either Thursday or Saturday to give officials the opportunity to call multiple games.
Staton said that his crew, which covers Northeast Georgia, is always looking for new talent who would like a shot at calling games.
He said the total cost of becoming certified runs less that $300, which you can make back in just a few weeks.
“It’s really good money to make, plus a good way to stay involved in the game,” said Staton, who owns a heating and air conditioning business in Alpharetta.
Statewide, Yarbrough said that they need approximately 200 more officials for football to be fully staffed at around 2,000.
The biggest hit to the officiating numbers came during the coronavirus pandemic, when the state was down as much as 25 percent from being fully staffed with officials, in some areas.
Now, with some veteran officials deciding to return, who previously had retired, that figure is down to about 11 percent.
“Our numbers are slowly coming back,” Yarbrough said. “But I don’t know if we’ll ever be back to where we were 7 or 8 years ago.”
Yarbrough says that sportsmanship is the main factor keeping new officials from ever stepping on the field.
In fact, that was the central topic highlighted at a national conference he recently attended in Indianapolis.
Referees and officials have always been subject to verbal taunts and harassment at games, but now it’s spread like wildfire to social media platforms.
“Young officials could look at that and say, ‘Why would I subject myself to that?’” Yarbrough said. “I think sportsmanship is in a dark, dark hole.”
Gainesville High athletics director Adam Lindsey sees the potential for a game officials shortage as a significant issue, one they hear about regularly from the GHSA.
He said they have conversations on campus about everyone fulfilling their role and letting officials call the best game possible.
“We remind players that their job is to compete; coaches should focus on coaching and players families and fans should focus on supporting the team,” Lindsey said.
To be proactive in calming those concerns, Yarbrough pointed to the fact that 12 states have enacted laws that concern officials being assaulted during games.
Georgia has also introduced incentive packages, aimed at getting younger officials on the field.
Yarbrough said that the math is simple to entice new officials to give it a shot.
“You can go flip hamburgers and make $12 or $13 an hour, but work odd hours,” Yarbrough said. “But you can officiate football, and even at the junior varsity level, make $35-40 an hour. But, again, there’s other things you have to deal with in officiating.”
“I tell some of my former players it’s a good way to stay involved in the game, make some good money and satisfy that desire to still be involved in the game,” Montgomery said.
Yarbrough is steadfast in saying that all officials are doing their very best, regardless of the sport they’re calling.
“There’s not an official out there who wants to do a poor job,” Yarbrough said. “They all want to call the best game possible.”