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Virginia faces shortage of referees

(Image: Marc Davis/WTKR)
(Image: Marc Davis/WTKR)

Tensions are high at Scope Arena.

It’s a highly anticipated matchup between Woodside and Maury for the Class 5 Region B championship.

Fans from both teams are raucous. The players are finished with their layup lines. And the three referees, whistles in hand, flank the players from around the court.

Tonight’s matchup will operate without a hitch…but that’s not been the case for Virginia sports since last spring.

Virginia faces a referee shortage that’s resulted in increased workloads and understaffed games across different sports and among multiple levels of play.

Billy Haun, the executive director for the Virginia High School League, says the shortage is something that’s been anticipated even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We really are at a crossroads where we need to start recruiting officials, and probably as much as important as recruiting, is retaining officials,” Haun said.

The shortage has hit niche sports like field hockey harder than others. Officials can’t simply officiate one sport then easily hop over to another. They need to understand the complexities of each game to effectively officiate them.

The number of officials has dropped by 800. Though V-H-S-L counts refs once for every sport they officiate, so those numbers don’t necessarily reflect 800 people.

Haun attributes three things to the shortage: COVID-19 led to departures, officials are aging out and there’s an increased lack of sportsmanship that’s turned off prospective referees.

The latter two, specifically, are an ongoing issue.

Tom Keipe has umpired little league baseball and all ages of softball for 15 years. He says respect for officials has dropped during his tenure. And it’s not from the players, but from the fans and parents in the stands.

“There was an older lady, grandma or something…Probably in her 80s…she was nice and then all of a sudden she heard a coach at first say ‘She was safe! She was safe!,’” Keipe explained. “All of a sudden she kept saying was ‘She was safe!’ ‘She was safe!’ But it only takes one and then the whole crowd chirps in.”

Keipe believes most coaches and fans are easy to work with, but those who heckle and berate referees have added unnecessary stress to the job.

Dwain Miller got his start as a referee in the Philippines in 1985. He has officiated multiple sports, including basketball and football.

“Most of it is the fan pressure,” Miller said. “You get a lot of screaming and hollering at the officials.”

The heckling has made it increasingly difficult to bring in newer, younger referees to replace the ones entering retirement.

“The game is not that hard to follow, especially if someone has already been playing before,” Miller said. “But when you get that added pressure from the outside it’s hard to keep people around.”

Keipe recruits everywhere he goes. He tells younger people he’ll go with them to a ball field and show them the ropes behind the plate and around the diamond.

But despite his best efforts, it’s been difficult for him to generate interest.

“I’ll say ‘What are your thoughts on doing softball?’ And they’re all like ‘Really? I can make this much money if I just came out here…,’ Keipe said.” ‘[I say] yeah, here's my name number, give me your name number contact,’ and then they lose interest and why? I don't know why.”

Haun thinks the official associations did a nice job recruiting upwards of ten new officials in Fall 2021. He thinks they’d be in good shape if that trend continued every three or so years.

Despite the promising hires, however, those associations ran into the same issues as Keipe and Miller.

“By Week 3, six of them had quit because of all of the criticism from spectators, coaches…from the adults basically,” Haun said.

The wave of retirements plus the inability to replace them with new refs has created a situation where officials are working more games than usual and sometimes working understaffed.

Haun says none of the winter sports have canceled games due to the shortage, but basketball officials have needed to work several nights a week.

Both Miller and Keipe had to pick up more games.

“I actually do some assigning for one of the associations,” Miller said. “And I've found a flux of guys that I don't have to perform our games.”

Keipe says even though the situation isn’t ideal, the officials have an obligation to fulfill their contracts with the different official associations…even if that means umpiring short-handed.

“Where normally in baseball, you always have two umpires…might [now] have to cut back to one,” Keipe said. “Hence, you get the same quality of umpiring? No.”

Haun says they’re interested in following other states’ leads by recruiting high school and college-aged people to officiate games. In those states athletics associations have been able to offer course credit for officiating games.

For spring sports, Haun believes that they’ll survive like they have through winter.

He anticipates officials working more than two nights a week.

The Hampton Roads Educational Telecommunications Association which is made up of 21 school districts holds WHRO’s FCC license.

Connor Worley is a Missouri native who creates long-form content in coordination with WHRO’s newsroom and other departments. WHRV listeners will recognize Connor as an occasional on-air host. Connor earned his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Print from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in Journalism and Audio at the Cronkite School of Arizona State. Connor enjoys the great outdoors, technology, and music. He lives in Virginia Beach.

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