‘Every call is good for 50 percent of the people’

Freddie Stewart, Middle Georgia Football Officials Association

Each week, five high school coaches will discuss one issue that affects Georgia high school sports.Last week: Transfers

At Issue: The relationship between the Georgia High School Football Association and the various officials organizations across the state has never been perfect. Because of countless moving parts and an increase in the number of schools and games needed to be called, a state of the union for high school officiating becomes hard to provide. Viewpoints offer inconsistencies and, at times, contradicting information. Perhaps it's the nature of the beast. And it is a big beast. The almost 400 schools playing multiple sports in the state are served by more than 150 officials associations — more than 20 for football alone — representing thousands of referees. There are bound to be disagreements.

So what are the main issues affecting the men and women who call high school sports?

The Skinny: Freddie Stewart has been an official for almost 30 years, and it's just about all he has ever known.

“I started because my father was a 40-year veteran and my father-in-law was a 50-year veteran, so I kind of followed behind them,” he said.

During his time officiating and working in conjunction with the GHSA, Stewart has seen nearly everything the organization, the fans and profession has to offer. And he said things have improved in the past two decades.

“The game has improved tremendously," Stewart said. "I think that the growth of the number of schools vs. the number of officials that are beginning to officiate is good, but the ratio is not as good as it used to be.”

Stewart: "Well, now, you have more officials on the field than when I first started because the game has gotten so much faster and more complex. When I started it was 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. And you might have five passes a game. Now you might have five running plays a game. Right? So I think that is one of the big differences. And high schools have basically taken the same playbooks that they are using in college.

“As far as officials, we still have a big gap with recruiting officials and retaining them over a period of time. This is a hobby. It is not a job, and you are not going to get rich doing it. You are not actually going to maintain a household by doing it. You must really love what you are doing. The pay is — compared to when I first started — great for me. But when you look at the amount of time that you might spend on a Friday night for a game and if you look at what you get paid — $125 — if you do the math, it’s not a whole bunch of money per hour that you earn. You might tie up as much as five to eight hours on one Friday night for 125 bucks. So you have to really love what you’re doing.

“(We deal with) changing times. On social media, it spreads faster now if you miss something. It spread back in the day, too. Information still got out there if you missed a call. But every call now, you just cannot have rabbit ears if you are in this profession or doing this hobby. Every call you make is going to be good for 50 percent of the people. And you just have to learn to live with that. There is no call that you have to make where everyone is going to stand up and cheer for you.

“How do you get better at those split-second decisions? Well preseason training for the younger guys. You learn from that. It's your middle-school or junior-varsity training and your recreation-ball training. And you must remember the principles. Pause. Read. React. You do not have to make that call simultaneously with the infraction. Take a second within your mind to replay it. Even if you do not have the replay camera, you can take time in your mind to replay what you saw.

“I will say that the backlash from coaches has gotten a lot better. The GHSA has done a really good job of governing and controlling what the coaches say and their actions toward you. Now, the fans, there are some things the GHSA has done to help. They do have a disclaimer they read before games. But you are still going to have that one fan — that mother, father, grandfather, or so on — who is still going to be who they are, regardless. And you just cannot let yourself hear them. You just must go ahead, and when that play is over, move to the next play. But social media today, it is like when we first started, they had pay phones and information spread that way. And it will get even worse the longer we live.

“The travel pay is good, but it’s not enough to actually cover your expenses. Because you pay one-way to the location. And so if you drive 75 miles to a game and you get 15 bucks total, you might burn a tank of gas there and back. That is an individual association policy. The GHSA says how much you pay for an official. So associations, depending on their budgets, try to compensate. But the GHSA sets the pay scale, which says how much you pay for an official and how much you pay for travel.

“The GHSA is taking steps to improve the pay, but they can only make changes and recommendations every two years or so. The way thing are going it might take longer than two years – with the economy the way it is – and what they are doing might only be half of what’s needed. ... But they are taking great strides to help compensate for the differences. And I think that the way they are scheduling games for associations is helping a lot, too. It is keeping officials closer to their home base during the regular season. The playoffs are a different story, and obviously pay goes up then. But in the regular season, they are basically scheduling schools within their geographical region as close as they can, which helps out a lot.”

AT ISSUE: High school officiating

• Ernie Yarbrough, GHSA assistant executive director
• Bill Palmer, Northeast Georgia official 
• James Frey, Gold Coast Officials Association
• James Hogan, International City Football Officials Association
• Freddie Stewart, Middle Georgia Football Officials Association
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