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State Associations Navigating Different Kind of Officials Shortage

By Tim Leighton on September 29, 2020 october Print

Recruiting and retaining officials has presented a different kind of challenge in recent months for state high school associations battling the effects of the COVID-19 virus. Typically, past recruiting efforts have involved encouraging individuals to consider pursuing the avocation. Now, a shortage of another kind has been created as officials are stepping away or not coming back because of health concerns associated with the coronavirus.

Consider these snapshots from various states:

  • The Michigan High School Athletic Association is down nearly 30 percent in its registered officials from a year ago. “We’re down, but we have begun to see the anticipated influx after reinstating football, and opening up volleyball, boys soccer, and girls swimming and diving in the great majority of our state,” said MHSAA Assistant Director Brent Rice.
  • In the Missouri State High School Activities Association, assistant executive director Kenny Seifert said registration is down about 15 percent from a year ago. Some of the reasons Seifert reported for the decline included officials being in a higher-risk age category or having a compromised immune system; spouses being pregnant or having compromised immune systems and not wanting to risk infection; living in an area of the state that has not committed to participating in fall sports.
  • The Minnesota State High School League, which annually registers more than 6,000 officials, it is down to about half that number. Soccer officials are down about 20 percent while swimming and diving officials have remained steady. “We realize some officials will be conflicted about returning to officiating,” said Jason Nickleby, the MSHSL coordinator of officials. “We have worked really hard to provide adjustments and modifications to make the experience as safe as we can make it.”

In the wake of the newest challenge, state associations have become creative and adaptive to quickly evolving digital platforms that could become the norm. Meetings, clinics and training have replaced in-person gatherings, and terms like “physical distancing,” “protocols,” “droplet control,” “masking” and “electronic whistles” have become common phrases as state associations move forward with plans to educate and prepare for seasons that look much different than ever before.

Among the most active and creative state associations is the New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA).

Dana Pappas, NMAA commissioner of officials, says it is difficult to tell at this point what registration numbers will look like because the activities the association sanctions have been shifted to after January 1. As a result, registration deadlines have been adjusted accordingly. With volleyball being the first to start on October 5, the NMAA had fewer than a dozen officials reporting that they would not return because of pre-existing conditions.

In the meantime, Pappas and her crew of clinicians and staff colleagues have been active with officiating initiatives. Among them:

  • Since the end of March, the NMAA has been offering weekly, bi-weekly or monthly webinars in various sports and topics to keep stakeholders engaged in officiating. Football has had nearly 100 webinars since the end of March.
  • The NMAA is in the midst of a program called “NMOA Hot Seat.” Each week, a “hot seat” interview takes place with an official for each of the sports the association sanctions. Pappas says it is something fun, light and an avenue for officials to keep in touch and to show the human side of officiating.
  • Executive Director Sally Marquez has hosted Q-and-A sessions for officials. This has proven to be a great method of communicating for the officiating population in New Mexico.

“Communication between our officials and the office is at an all-time high,” said Pappas, who also serves as NMAA deputy director. “The silver lining of COVID has been the new strategies and initiatives we have developed that are sustainable for our future.”

The shutdown and limiting of collegiate sports have been an unexpected source for new officials.

“We have had reports from our local assignors that they have been able to recruit from college teams that lost their season, had it shortened, or even changed to later in the year or to the spring,” said Butch Cope, assistant commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. “There was already a need for officials. The pandemic just puts more pressure to recruit and retain.”

Through the challenges, state associations remain optimistic and confident.

“As officials, we train to be the calm among the chaos,” Seifert said. “As a state association, I think it is very important that we model that statement. Understanding and accepting the uncertainty, along with being flexible, will assist us in calming the turbulent waters.”

“We realize some officials will be conflicted about returning to officiating,” Nickleby said. “We worked really hard to provide adjustments and modifications to make the experience as safe as we can make it. We are hopeful that we will weather the storm for this year, and we will have a strong showing when we can return to a normal schedule.”