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There’s no fix for a referee shortage for high school football

A few years ago, in early autumn, Steve DiSangro received a random call from a friend who runs a sports officials apparel store in Newtown. The friend came across a rare sight — a guy, younger than 25, was checking out officials gear. DiSangro had told his friend that if he ever came across anyone interested in officiating to let him know. DiSangro, a charter member of the Del-Val Chapter of officials, asked his friend to immediately put the guy, Austin Hormel, on the phone. DiSangro gave him his pitch and today Hormel is a high school football official in the area.

DiSangro lucked out, as being a high school football official is a sell that currently is often ignored. In fact, it’s beginning to reach lows that are leading to a rise in games played on Thursday nights, since there are not enough officials to go around for weekend games. And it’s getting worse locally and nationally.

Five years ago, DiSangro, 61, the official assigner for the Suburban One League, Inter-Academic League, Bicentennial League, Independent League, and Keystone State Football League (8-man football), had a surplus of 250 officials to assign. That number is down to 150 on-field officials. Gerry DiGiovanni, 64, has been an official for over 40 years. He is the assigning official for the Ches-Mont and Central Leagues. His numbers have sunk in that same span of time from 270 to 144. Rick Levans, 63, has been officiating for 26 years. He is the assigning official at the youth level for Bucks and Montgomery Counties and Philadelphia, and he officiates high school games. Levans’ numbers have sunk from 134 to 83.

“Those numbers are typical nationally,” said Barry Mano, 79, the founder and President of the National Association of Sports Officials who officiated for 23 years. “We’re really in the worst time in my memory, and I’ve been doing this for over 40 years. We were already experiencing a national shortage of officials pre-COVID pandemic, and the pandemic put the exclamation point on it. When games started to come back after the pandemic, many people decided not to come back. That’s made the problem even worse. That’s what we’re suffering from today.

“The biggest problem is not the players or the coaches. The biggest problem we see is the bad fan behavior, and the second part of that is getting trashed on social media. You’re going to go out and work a day for $50, or $60, or $81 and then you’re going to get trashed on social media, where they drop your name and sometimes even more personal information. You say to yourself, ‘I don’t really need this.’ That’s another drag on getting warm bodies in this business.”

Mano said that the number of officials nationally are down in numbers a good 25% and in some areas of the country 30%. One Mano’s study revealed that out of every 100 officials that start only 30 are left by the third year. It’s becoming incredibly difficult to recruit anyone younger than 30 to officiate high school football games. DiSangro, who’s been officiating high school football since 1992, says he has two officials younger than 30 in his group. When DiSangro began, there used to be 30 officials working youth football who wanted to step up and officiate at the high school level, he said.

The dearth of officials has caused minor rescheduling of games. In the very near future, more games may be spread out during the week because there may be not enough officials to go around.

“It’s why I’m trying to get more people involved,” said DiSangro, a Lincoln High School graduate and retired union worker. “This is the worst it’s been. A lot of the older guys that are leaving and not being replaced. There’s a financial factor here, too. Today, with the amount of money that they’re paying at the youth level, guys don’t want to officiate high school football anymore. That breaks my heart. There’s nothing like Friday night high school football.

“Bert Bell is paying $71 a game, I think, and in Pop Warner, it’s over $60. You can show up 15 minutes before a game and work three games. Our guys get $81 a game ($100 for playoff games). Our officials are required to be at the game site 90 minutes before game time, then the game can be three hours, and by the time you get out of there, it might be 11 o’clock. That’s a long night. Everyone around the area is down. On a Friday night, you’re probably using most of your guys. Right now, we’re using a lot of the same officials. We saw some Thursday night games, and that has been a larger number of Thursday night games. The other reason no one wants to do it is guys are getting bashed; and what they see on social media.”

Said Levans: People will tell me ‘Your officials are bad,’ and I’ll tell them, ‘Exactly, we’re old, we’re out of shape,’ but I also let them know that in four years, they’re not going to have officials because no one wants to put up with these fans and parents. These guys don’t want to put up with the aggravation of being abused. The numbers are going to drop and drop at the youth and high school level.

“At one time, I was able to cover five leagues, and I can only cover three leagues. I have to do that at the youth level because we don’t have the officials for it. We get yelled at on the field at the high school games. But a lot of these coaches know me through youth football. When you have parents dropping F-bombs at 5–6-year-old youth flag football, you know there is a problem.”

DiGiovanni has his officials contact the schools a day in advance to go over emergency protocols. In the last five years, emergency protocols have been added for guns. Before that, the only emergency protocol was for lightning strikes.

“I don’t see it getting any better, because the schools don’t hold the parents accountable,” DiGiovanni said. “Our officials get escorted on and off the field, with fans calling them every name in the book. Schools don’t worry about that. I’m fortunate to have two great leagues I work with, with great coaching staffs and great kids. I love it. It’s why I keep coming back.

“Most guys who wear the stripes have the mentality that they want the kids to decide the game.”

The PIAA last month launched the PIAA Junior Officials Program in an attempt to increase the involvement of younger people in officiating. The program allows 16- and 17-year-olds to officiate ninth grade and below contests, and it implores local official chapters to “employ a Mentorship Program which must be strong and active.”

“It’s a great idea, but how will these kids get out of school early enough to officiate these games, and many of those games are held right after school, and how will they get there on time?” DiSangro asked. “I hope we can at least put a Band-Aid on the situation, because I don’t know if it can be completely solved. Tom Brady, the District 1 boys official’s representative, says to his guys every time he comes to a meeting, asking for one new person to get into officiating. We can get some new blood in here and solve the problem. We need to appeal to women who love sports to do football games. We need to appeal much more to younger people to get into officiating. I’ll get on the phone with anyone who shows an interest.”

Hormel is a member of the Del-Val Chapter of officials. He’s working for DiSangro. He’s one of DiSangro’s youngest officials. He just officiated his first playoff game this season.

“That’s a rare occurrence, getting someone young and having them stick with it,” DiSangro said. “If we can get into the colleges and talk to some of the college players who still want to be involved with football, this might be a way to stay close to the game and get paid for it. If we can get them early and train them, we can make them high school football refs. People better wake up. Without any officials, there is no game. It may not be next week, next month, or next year, but it’s coming and it better change, or the game will be in trouble.”

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Travis Burnett

Travis Burnett

A pioneer in the flag football community, Travis helped co-found the Flag Football World Championship Tour, FlagSpin and USA Flag. Featuring 15+ years of content creation for the sport of flag football, creating and managing the largest flag football tournaments on the planet, coaching experience at the youth and adult level as well as an active player with National and World Championship level experience.

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