‘It feels like we don’t have a say’

Bill Palmer, Northeast Georgia official

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: Bill Palmer has been officiating since 1972, and he has seen every aspect of the relationships between the GHSA and officials for 49 years. His goal? Just make it to 50.

“As far as I know, I will continue to do this,” Palmer said. “At least I am going to try for 50 years. That’s my goal. My health is such that I think I can do that.”

Palmer is the executive signing secretary for the Northeast Georgia Football Officials Association, and the venture has become a family affair for him and his wife, Rita.

“She has been very supportive,” he said. “In fact, she helps me and does the books and payroll when I am on the field on Friday nights.”

That type of support is not experienced by every official.

“That is a problem for some folks,” Palmer said. “A lot of younger wives just are not into that and are not eager to give up their husbands on Friday night, every Friday, for 10-12 weeks.”

And therein lies another struggle faced by younger officials entering the profession, or hobby, as most of the officials describe it. They do not officiate for the money — about $100 per game. They do it for the love of calling games. And in today’s world, that love has been hard to instill in younger generations.

So, what is working and what isn’t?

Palmer: "The only thing I can say is that with the GHSA officials and officiating are not the highest priority. The highest priority comes from teams, from coaches, from athletic directors, from principals and superintendents. And the on-field game officials are a part of the overall process that the GHSA must manage, but it is not a major part to them. We are not a squeaky wheel, and we do not vget a lot of the grease.

“We do suffer I think from a lack of inclusion in the decision-making process. I think the executive committee for the GHSA is top-heavy with administrators and does not include a cross-section of all the people that are impacted by their decisions. And I think that we should have more officials on the committee; there should be more coaches on the committee. There should be more (officials) association leaders on the executive committee so that when these decisions come up that do affect officiating, recruiting officials and retention, there should be a force that can represent us, someone who can say, ‘OK, we will think about this aspect before you do that so we do not end up having everything shoved down our throats.’

"Some decisions create problems that end up impacting us in recruiting and retention of officials. I think that is the one area of the GHSA where it can make some positive changes and it will help us to have a little better voice when the decisions are being made. We’ve all had times of talking with the (GHSA) and they do meet with us, but when we meet it's generally to receive the decisions that have already been made.

“... It’s a factor when you feel you are not considered when the decisions are made. Some of us just know its going to be that way, and we go on and do our job. Some of the younger folks — especially those that have been in five or 10 years and looking to move up — want to know exactly what they should do, and things change all the time. That leads to frustration and then futility. Best I can say it.

“The rate of officials is barely stagnant. We will lose 8-10 officials a year, whether its transferring, leaving Georgia, retiring, moving away from our district. We will pick up six or eight. But of those, half will not stay a year. So you can see the curve. It is downward. We used to have 140 guys in our association and now we are down to 115. In 2011 or so, we had 140. Now we are down.

“I don’t think (the GHSA) see themselves as part of the problem. I think they think they are doing everything they can to help us. I know they do try to back us up in a lot of cases. And I know they considered a pay-raise process this year, and we got it. And you know that there's some things on the surface that help, but underneath the real, real grind comes when a person is wanting to do the best he can to advance and to be considered for playoff games. And the things that he is told he has to do keeps changing. And that is just frustrating.

“Beyond that, I do not know what we’re going to do in the next four or five years if the trend continues. We will be back to work in varsity games with four-man crews, which we did 35 years ago. But that will not cover the game. Today's game is so fast and so talented that the athletes who are playing high school football these days are remarkably like the ones who played college football 15-20 years ago. And we would be trying to officiate the games with fewer officials. And that becomes problematic ... there is no doubt about it.”

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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