The vanishing whistleblowers: County schools battling official shortage

Local official Don Cook, who has worked at the craft for 53 years, spoke with the Ogle County Life about the impact of the referee shortage on local high school sports. (Courtesy photo)

‘I have legitimate fears for the sustainability of high school sports’

OGLE COUNTY — The future of high school team sports, especially in the rural areas, is in peril. Some of the contributing factors are a general lack of interest in sports as a result of social media, and gaming. The other is the amount of abuse that comes along with putting on the shirt and whistle.

“Not that long ago, people would come out of college in their 20s or a semi-retired individual would be looking for something to do and there would be an abundance of officials, not so today,” Oregon High School Athletic Director Mike Lawton, whose school is part of the Big Northern Conference, said. “It’s a fundamental change in our society since I started in 2011. The level of abuse at games is at an all-time high. It’s sad, schools like us try to make sportsmanship announcements and hang signs along the field and in the gym. It hasn’t helped too much.”

If you’ve had a child, relative or family friend participate in sports over the years, you might have found yourself getting caught up in the heat of the emotion of the game and yelled at an official. It’s the human condition of competitiveness. Most officials understand going in that getting yelled at is unfortunately part of the job. In a split second, one group that just cheered a call is now jeering.

According to Don Cook, who’s been an official for 53 years and thought that he had heard and seen it all but with modern technology, there is a new element to the cruelty.

“It’s happened on more than one occasion when one of our officials will be followed out to their car by an unhappy spectator trying to show the call made recorded on their phone,” Cook said. “Fans are tough and mean-spirited. Every year rules change but most fans don’t stay up with it and yell about an old rule getting everyone worked up.”

The officials that have continued to walk out on the field and the court are starting to get up in age, yet continue to stick around.

“I’ve had many conversations with the guys and they’ve told me that they would like to retire but don’t want to see the kids lose opportunities to compete,” Forreston High School Athletic Director Kyle Zick said. “These officials in our Northern Upstate Illinois Conference have done a fantastic job considering how short we are.”

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help matters. All sporting events were canceled and a lot of the regulars had to find other things to do.

“The guys that had been doing it all of these years liked the fact that they had their Friday nights open and could take their wives to supper”, Cook said. “There wasn’t any worry about covering games on the weekend and they found new interests and didn’t come back.”

Of the handful of new brave souls that have decided to step in between the lines, the lack of officials has thrust them into working varsity games when they might not be ready, making matters worse.

“We are forced to use inexperienced officials in varsity games or cancel the them because we don’t have anyone else,” Lawton said. ”The coaches, players and parents don’t understand that. Why would anyone want to put up with the abuse? Often times they don’t come back. Then if a student is sitting in the stands and was possibly considering trying to referee, the yelling and screaming makes it an easy decision not to.”

Both schools now have to cancel games as a result of not being able to find anyone.

“Here’s an example,” Lawton said. ”We typically leave Wednesday and Fridays open for makeup games due to weather. Those games are now not being made up.”

Zick said every sport has seen issues with officials. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be a solution to the problem.

“I have legitimate fears for the sustainability of high school sports,” Lawton said. “If we continue to have teacher, coach, bus driver, and referee shortages, high school sports goes away after more than 80 years. It might not be in the next couple of years but certainly in the next 8-10.”

So, the next time you go to a football, basketball or volleyball game and you’re ready to lose your cool, just take a moment to realize what’s at stake and turn that negative energy into something positive. And consider putting on a whistle.