The Nationwide Referee Shortage: A Growing Concern for Youth Athletics

Image taken by Emma Stark at the Mendham Girls Volleyball Group Two-State Finals of a line judge calling a ball out of bounds.

At the end of the Coronavirus lockdown, the nation’s youth began participating in their extracurricular athletics once again. However, the country entered a major crisis: a nationwide referee shortage. The number of referees available to officiate youth sporting events has dramatically decreased, causing the cancelations of games and tournaments across all sports and levels.

Since most referees tend to be near or beyond retirement age, many became worried about contracting Covid-19, while some refused to comply with masking requirements. Referees with 9-5 work schedules have also contributed to the shortage, as most high school games start at 4 o’clock. Other referees realized they no longer enjoyed the physically and mentally demanding profession because of their abusive job environments. Referees encounter poor sportsmanship on and off the field. A 2020 survey conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) revealed that 57% of referees believed sportsmanship was worsening due to parents and coaches. They lose perspective over the stakes of a youth sports game, thus taking their anger out on the officials. This mistreatment can be daunting to younger officials who do not have previous experience dealing with it.

Junior Varsity (JV) girls soccer player Erica Russo, a Junior at Mendham High School, explained that the referees gave out numerous yellow cards to disrespectful coaches throughout her team’s season. “I think a lot of them were getting really frustrated,” she claimed. 

“We lost about 30% of our referees,” according to Mr. Panfile, Mendham’s Coordinator of Athletics and Student Activities.

We lost about 30% of our referees.

— Mr. Panfile

Although all sports have been affected by the shortage, Mendham soccer felt the impact the most. “We’ve canceled between eight and ten soccer games this year,” Mr. Panfile added. In some circumstances, when Mendham was unable to schedule officials, the Minutemen scrimmaged their opposing teams so long as both coaches agreed to step in and make calls. 

Mr. Baig, Freshman Girls Soccer coach, mentioned that most games his teams played this season and last consisted of one referee on the field. “Typically over all the years that I’ve been coaching soccer, we’ve had two officials on the field,” he said. 

To resolve the crisis, state referee committees have begun recruiting college students to become officials after graduation. The committees are also working to raise the average salary per game to make the field more attractive. Most recently, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) launched a campaign to control unsportsmanlike behavior from parents at sporting events. The organization released a letter from a 20-year veteran soccer official, as well as a video titled “The Parent Seat” where NFHS executive director Karissa L. Niehoff advises parents to “act [their] age” and “stay in [their] own lane.” 

Russo’s teammate Nuch Scholte, another Junior at Mendham, believed the shortage “made us more grateful for the refs that we did have and enjoy the playing time that we had on the field even more.” 

However, as the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic continues to occur, the referee shortage is likely to increase, jeopardizing future sporting events. Therefore, it is now more important than ever that coaches, players, parents, and fans respect their current referees to ensure their return.