Keith Hammond has worn a whistle since his senior year of high school. Over his 40-plus years of officiating, he has faced his fair share of challenges, calling four different sports for nine associations. He now faces a new dilemma: a dwindling pool of postseason eligible officials.
The issue has surfaced as Friday marks the start of the GHSA football state playoffs.
Hammond serves as a football liaison for GHSA, assisting as coordinator of the Playoff Evaluation Board. The board assesses playoff crews’ performances to clear them to advance further into the tournament.
“There are boxes along the way you have to check,” he said. “And we’re finding this year that people aren’t checking all of those boxes.”
Officials must work a total of five contests, with varsity games counting as one contest and junior-varsity games counting as half of a credit, pass a state exam with a score of 84 or higher, attend a state camp and take an online clinic to become playoff approved, according to Hammond. Individuals must then review a seven-man crew clinic to be completely eligible.
GHSA approved a seven-man crew of officials in 2018. GHSA Assistant Executive Director Ernie Yarbrough said even with over 2,000 officials in the state, the rule created problems when the pandemic began.
“The combination of when they approved the seven person crews with COVID, it put us in a situation where our coordinator of football had to become creative,” he said. “(Kevin Giddens) and his liaisons have done a great job of making sure that all of our schools are getting the best officials available for the playoffs.”
As part of the solution, Class 2A and 4A first-round matchups took place on a Saturday during last year’s postseason. This year, Class A-Private, A-Public and 6A first-round games will be played Saturday to allow crews to cover every game in the state.
But the struggle to fill postseason roles is only part of a larger decline in the number of officials. After seeing statewide growth through 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a sudden downturn across the board.
Yarbrough said registration of officials is down 11% across all sports since the pandemic began. Football saw the greatest decline of all sponsored sports, down 17%.
Hammond is a board member and official for the Georgia Football Officials Association, an organization serving 26 schools throughout metro Atlanta. According to Hammond, there are 132 officials on its roster, but only 118 of those are actively officiating.
Hammond began officiating with GFOA in 1986, a time where the organization boasted over 200 members. Even 15 years ago, GFOA had over 150 active officials. COVID-19 caused a significant hit in their numbers last season.
“I want to say we had about 20-25% of our people sit out last year,” he said. “And I would say maybe half of them came back this year.”
Both Yarbrough and Hammond said part of the problem is the number of officials retiring exceeds the number of officials the state draws in. In a sport composed of 14- to 18-year-olds, the average age of a football official is 53.
“With officials, you get older every year,” Yarbrough said. “We’re not getting the same percentage of new officials in at the same rate that we have officials aging out. And that’s the concern.”
As officials retire, another issue associations face is replacing experience and skill. Seasoned officials who have worked 20, 30 or more seasons and postseasons are being replaced with refs in their second or third years of officiating.
“We don’t go as deep as we used to,” Hammond said. “If we have 12 games in a week to cover and you’re putting say six-man crew, putting 72 men on the field, the level between that top official and that 72nd man is wider today than I think it was 25, 35 years ago.”
He said finding young talent has dwindled in his 39 years as a GHSA official.
“Believe it or not, recruiting used to almost take care of itself,” he said. “I can remember when we started you would walk into a rookie class, and there’s 25 of you. Now you’re lucky if there’s five of you.”
The Northwest Georgia Football Officials Association covers teams in Floyd, Gordon, Whitfield and surrounding counties in the northwest corner of the state. NWGFOA booking secretary Garrett Burgner echoed the challenge to recruit in his area.
“It just doesn’t seem like anybody wants to join up and officiate,” he said. “We put up advertisements in newspapers, we go to high school, college career fairs. It’s just hard to get new officials in.”
NWGFOA, like the other 23 associations around the state, have a variety of tactics to reach the public. Social media, career fairs, advertisements, emails to coaches, television and other avenues are used to attract workers.
Local associations are not the only groups looking to mobilize refs. Three years ago, GHSA launched an initiative called “Playing on Another Team,” which attempts to recruit former college recruits and first responders. The National Federation of State High School Associations began a nationwide push in 2017 called #BecomeAnOfficial, a program that registers officials across the country and allows state associations to contact and assign them to local affiliations.
One Atlanta area association has seen success at recruiting and retaining quality officials. Capitol City Football is a predominantly Black association serving the Atlanta area that saw six or seven members sit out during the 2020 season because of COVID-19, but is back to full strength this season. Ralph Green, a CCF member, said the organization has succeeded by finding officials, mostly by word-of-mouth, at the recreational level who want to move up the ranks.
“Some recreation officials aspire to be high school or collegiate,” he said. “Some of our officials work high school and recreation. Recruiting on the recreational field and being able to communicate via Zoom has been effective.”
While associations work to bring in individuals, the final battle is to keep them working. The first few seasons are crucial to retaining, according to Hammond.
“Keeping them is the key,” he said. “If you can keep them for three years, then you’re probably going to keep them a long time.”
The Carmical Sports Media Institute at the University of Georgia prepares students for careers in all fields related to sports and media.