Referees protect the sanctity of sports; a martyr to the cause of defining the lines of right and wrong on fields and in arenas. During play, referees are the law. Their whistle is the articulation of sports justice.
There are around 325,000 total people in the U.S. that are eligible to officiate high school sports compared to roughly 8 million high school athletes; there are 3 referees for every 80 high school athletes in the U.S..1 But a crisis is at our doorstep that threatens the entire ecosystem of youth sports. There is a national shortage of referees and the position is on the decline. Many states are publicly reporting double-digit year-to-year percentages declines in the number of licensed officials. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 80 percent of high school sports officials quit before their third year, causing the average age of sports officials to balloon to 55 in recent years, with 45% of officials reporting they have less than six years remaining in their career (Officially Human).
What’s causing the decline? According to data from Officially Human’s survey of over 15,000 sports officials, the primary driver for the decline is the verbal abuse, disrespect, and poor sportsmanship officials received from fans, coaches, and parents. NASO data shows that 85% of officials feel spectators treat them unfairly in addition to 70% of coaches. Our own internal data shows that 1 in 3 officials actively considered quitting in the past year due to poor sportsmanship and fan behavior and NASO found that 85% say they are likely to quit if verbal and physical abuse continues to worsen. It is evident there is a direct correlation with the decline of referees and poor sportsmanship.
Hostile sports fans have made it hard for learning institutions to attract new officiating talent. NASO found that 50% of officials have felt unsafe due to the behavior of players, coaches, and parents. Even parents and fans see the problem. The 2019 Indy Sports Poll found that 49% of central Indiana residents who had attended a youth sports game in the last five years had witnessed at least one incident between officials and parents they believed was “over the line.” The same survey found only 40% of parents would discourage their child from becoming a sports official and 45% would be considered about their personal safety.
Officials are frustrated that tournament organizers and administrators are not doing anything to address poor fan behavior during games and events. With 3 in 5 sports officials believing they are not respected by parents and fans and feeling that sportsmanship is getting worse, it’s time for action.