The struggle to recruit, retain game officials a concern for GHSA

Startup costs. Ridicule from fans, players and coaches. Social media scrutiny. Hate mail.

Is it worth it to go through all that to referee Georgia High School sports?

While Georgia seems to be doing OK in terms of paying, recruiting and retaining high school game officials in relation to other parts of the country, the challenge to keep it that way remains.

Currently, there are roughly 9,000 registered game officials in Georgia, according to GHSA assistant director Ernie Yarbrough, who oversees the officiating department for all sports. While that's a good number — Yarbrough said the association is down just 200 referees since 2010 — there's concern that officials will move onto other endeavors and that bringing in new referees will be increasingly difficult.

A GHSA study conducted this year called "Recruiting and Retention," which surveyed 1,284 GHSA game officials, was provided to the AJC and sheds light on the current state of officiating. First, the officials were asked to rank the top issues with regard to recruiting new officials. The top two issues were job/work related conflicts and the expense to start officiating.

Think of new referees as a small business owners. They must pay significant startup costs before they see a return on their investment.

"It's not a job where you're hired in and everything is provided for you," Yarbrough said.

New referees must pay for uniforms, equipment, registration fees and training materials. What's worse? A lot of schools don't pay their game fees, which go to game officials, until the end of the season. Yarbrough said he's working hard to change that, but that "it's been that way forever."

Football game officials make $100 per game and $150 for a postseason game, which is above the national average of $79 and $95, according to a GHSA study provided to the AJC. But the wait that some officials have before collecting on their initial investment is a tough one, especially when most are fresh out of college and paying off student loans or are in a position where they need supplemental income sooner than later.

The startup costs and other reasons listed in the survey – job/work related conflicts, family responsibilities, geographical travel restrictions and state association prerequisites that include background checks, training and exams, etc. — are challenges to get new officials in the mix. Keeping them around? That's a separate story.

Yarbrough said that if the GHSA can retain an official for three years, there's a strong likelihood they'll stay for the long haul. According to the "Recruiting and Retention" study, the No. 1 reason for not retaining officials beyond three years is the conduct of players, coaches and spectators.

"Officials feel under attack because the behavior of spectators and coaches has gotten out of hand," Yarbrough said. "I truly believe that 90 percent of the time, that's a reflection of the coach."

From a data standpoint, there's plenty to back up Yarbrough's assertion. After each game, officials fill out game reports that list "unsporting behavior" and/or ejections. During the 2017-18 school year, there were 1,644 incidents. In 2018-19 there were 2,397 — a 45-percent increase in just a year. That's a staggering number, one that prompted GHSA executive director Dr. Robin Hines, and NHFS executive director Karissa Niehoff to write the op-ed, "Parents & Adult Fans: The Biggest Challenge Facing High School Sports Today."

"I'm amazed how adults sometimes justify their behavior because of a bad call," Hines told the AJC. "One thing shouldn't control another. A call doesn't allow a coach or another adult to use abusive language toward a game official."

Hines is taking action. Starting this year, the GHSA will publish reports to its website that will be available to the public. The reports will list the fines and other issues related to sportsmanship for each school. The list will include the full picture, meaning any positive or negative occurrences of sportsmanship. Hines said he plans for the first report to be published around Christmas break, with a comprehensive report to follow after the school year.

In addition, if a coach's actions warrant it, his/her case could be escalated to the Georgia Processional Standards Commission for an investigation. In March, the conclusion of a GPSC investigation into Colquitt County football coach Rush Probst, for a number of ethics violations — including verbally abusing his players — led to his dismissal.

"We're starting to crack down on coaches because that type of behavior is not tolerated in the classroom, so it shouldn't be tolerated on the playing field either," said Paul Shaw, GPSC director of ethics.

While the GHSA is cracking down on abusive behavior toward game officials from coaches, fans are less in their control — and totally out of their control in the realm of the internet and social media.

Take the 2017 Class AAA state championship game between the Calhoun Yellow Jackets and Peach County Trojans as an example. With 3:33 remaining, and Peach County facing a fourth-and-8 from the Calhoun 21, the Trojans scored what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown, with the receiver catching the ball at the 5-yard line, taking two full steps and diving through the end zone, with the ball coming out of the receiver's hands as he hit the ground and after he crossed the goal line. The pass was ruled incomplete, despite replays shown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and throughout the state in a live televised broadcast clearly proving it was a catch.

Although the referee later admitted fault in the missed call, he received hate mail and death threats, said James Arnold, who heads the Etowah Valley Football Association, a GHSA Officials Association affiliate. The threats and hate mail were later amplified when Fox Sports analysts said the play was a catch on their webcast, "Last Call with Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino." Pereira is the former NFL Vice President of Officiating; Blandino is the former head of NFL officiating.

The abuse proved too much for the veteran GHSA official, who resigned in the offseason. Instances like these make the decision for someone to become a game official more difficult.

"Most refs get into officiating because it's something they love," Arnold said. "But it's time away from family, it's an investment for uniforms and equipment and you're only getting paid so much — and there's criticism on top of that. If you're on the outside looking in and you're seeing how one call in one game is scrutinized — especially on social media — it's awfully hard to justify why you'd want to get into it."