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‘Our officials do not deserve (social-media) abuse’

ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Ernie Yarbrough, GHSA assistant executive director

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: Ernie Yarbrough has been with GHSA since 2002 and serves as the assistant executive director. He oversees officiating for all sports and is the coordinator for basketball, baseball and softball. He assists in the administration of championships and represents the GHSA at state, regional and national sports-related conferences.

Yarbrough is no stranger to the world of officiating. He worked for 13 years in player development for the NFL, coached and taught for six years at the high school level and 10 years at the college level. He officiated high school and college sports for 30 years and officiated international practice games for the Olympics in 1996. He was the director of officiating for the first women’s professional basketball league (ABL) from 1996-99.

Throughout its history, the GHSA’s relationship with officials constantly has fluctuated from hot to cold. Not everyone is going to be happy all the time. Yarbrough understands this.

Yarbrough: "Well, I know that one of the issues, not only in the state of Georgia but throughout the nation, is the feeling that there is a lack of officials. And just from the perspective of here in our state, our numbers, our total numbers of officials are up.

“Our registration numbers last year were up from the previous year. The issue that we are facing is, as we continue to add schools, more games on a given night. And just for an example, I will use football. If schools are using either the six- or seven-men crew process at their home games, and then if you add — over the course of the last 10 years 10 to 15 schools — and multiply those numbers, it does not mean that our numbers are going down. What it means is there are more games for our people to cover. And that's what's happening.

“The National Federation asked me to run a survey a year ago, and that survey said the No. 1 issue was recruiting officials, and No. 2 which is of more importance, is the retaining of officials. The statistics state that if you can keep a young official for three years, they will stay for a while. One of the biggest factors that affect that are the out-of-control sportsmanship that high school officials are subjected to now at games. And we have sportsmanship records; it’s been something that Dr. Robin Hines has stressed to our schools. We have developed a new sportsmanship council that Penny Pitts is running. To be honest, that issue is something that young and veteran officials have to deal with constantly; the way people are acting in the stands sometimes is ridiculous.

“The second thing is social media. When I speak to officials now, and when I speak to young officials, I tell them the difference from when I was an official is now you officiate the official. Everybody sees what you are doing, and if they don’t they can see it later on YouTube or on some blog or somewhere on social media, and everything you do gets criticized because you are in a position where 50 percent see things one way and 50 percent see it the other way. And so now people can hide behind social media and make any statements they want.

“And the sad part of it is our officials do not deserve it. You know, they just do not deserve it. I have never been of the belief that one missed call has ever cost a game. It may have an impact on the game, but it never cost the game for anybody. But every missed call that people feel a young official, or even a better official, every call ... they think there’s a catastrophe. And our officials are unfairly abused in social media.

“And so it’s those two things — sportsmanship and social media — that are really a deterrent from us being able to keep officials. We're recruiting (officials) more than they’ve ever been in our state. And we have to convince young officials that this is something that they would want to get into. It’s really tough because, because they see how people act toward officials during a game.

“The other element is that we are blessed to have some excellent veteran officials in our state, but, as in all levels of officiating, there comes a point in time where age catches up with you. Or you have other obligations as you get older. And so once again, what worries me a little bit is five years from now. Several our top-level officials will be retiring. It happened to me; it’s happened to others. There comes a point in time where you say, ‘Well, you know, I just can't do it anymore. And I can’t do it at the level that I want to be able to do it.’ So that is where the dilemma is.

“It is not a numbers issue. It is a number of games. And that's football, which is played primarily on a Friday night, where we’ve got 470 schools, of which maybe 450 of those are playing football. That’s 220 games. And on any given night, do you want to be able to provide our member schools with the best officials available? And sometimes that does not happen. Because we just ... again ... it's a number of games that have to be covered by a certain number of officials.

“For each game you’ve got in basketball, the issue is multiplied because you could have two junior-varsity games and two varsity games going on at a respective school. That would mean you would need five officials because you usually use two officials for JV contest and three for varsity contests. So then if you multiply that by the number of games and the number of teams that we have playing on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. So it’s not a total number issue. It is a number of games.

“Our training programs are as good as any in the country. I feel like we are able to draw quality officials in our state, who not only work at our highest level of our varsity and our playoff games, but also are NCAA officials. We have several professional officials in all sports who live here in the state, and we’re able to draw from them. Our training programs are really good. If an official wants to get better, then there are learning tools and opportunities for them to get better. So that side of it, I feel really good about.

“Our Board of Trustees and our Executive Committee just voted in a really good game-fee increase across the board for all of our sports in the regular season and in the postseason. Which makes our officials some of the highest paid in the Southeast and in many areas of the country. We’re working hard to make sure of that because we really value our officials. Just think about it. We couldn’t have games if we didn’t have our officials.

“We have an officiating advisory committee, which is a representative, one north and one south, from all of the sports. That committee was the one that got together back in the fall and discussed several of the issues, including game fees. We have what we call our district coordinator, and in every sport we have ample opportunities, when it is done the right way, for people to present concerns.

“I deal with referees on a regular basis. And what is hard for people to understand — and I am compassionate about this — officials in the metro Atlanta area are not dealing with the same situation that officials in Albany or officials in Savannah or officials in many of the fringe areas around the state. In the metro area, it is not an issue of numbers. We have probably 70 percent of our total officials somewhere in the metro Atlanta area, or at least north of Macon. So numbers is not an issue there.

“But that is why we try to make sure that we have representation from both the north and the south when it comes to our advisory committee. We have an official committee that meets when the executive committee meets twice a year, and if there are officiating issues that need to be presented, they can be presented to the executive committee. It is not an issue where things are decided without a voice. That is just not true.

“But there are certain individuals within the state who would want people to believe that. It's like any other thing in the method of the presentation — it goes a long way in determining how much that presentation is considered. Right? And if it's constantly nothing but negative, negative, negative. ... It is the adage of, ‘If all you’re going to present is problems, then it’s tough to come up with a solution.’ ”

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
» MORE: Previous topics

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