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Pandemic, rude fans lead to shortage of IHSA officials

The behavior of fans is driving a number of IHSA officials away.
Courtesy photo
Illinois High School Association
The behavior of fans is driving a number of IHSA officials away.

At the end of the 2015-2016 school year, the Illinois High School Association had around 13,700 licensed officials for sports from football and basketball to water polo and gymnastics.

For the upcoming school year, that number is expected to be just under 11,000.

“What we’ve seen is this gradual lack of returning, lack of renewing a license by officials,” said Kurt Gibson, associate executive director of IHSA.

Gibson said the number of licensed officials for the organization’s 820 member schools has been declining for about ten years.

That accelerated in recent years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Gibson said surveys of departing officials show another issue.

“The behavior of fans is driving a number of officials away,” Gibson said.

A thankless job

Gibson said the work of officials can be thankless.

It’s also, for most people, a side hustle on top of a full-time job.

IHSA wants to remind fans that although officials can make mistakes – just like players and coaches do – they are doing their best.

They are also essential to the sports.

“Without officials, without people giving of their time, talent, and service to others, students aren’t going to be able to play games,” Gibson said.

In a few cases, competitions have been cancelled because of the shortage.

But so far a bigger challenge for schools is scheduling, when there simply aren’t enough officials to go around.

“What schools have been doing over these past couple years is looking for alternative dates to play, so that an officiating crew in a sport like football, for example, could maybe work a Thursday night game, a Friday night game, and a Saturday afternoon game,” Gibson said.

IHSA is working to attract new generations of officials such as recent college graduates.

They’ve also had some success in recruiting former athletes, empty nesters, and parents in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

Stepping up

Aaron Frey is among those stepping up to officiate high school sports.

He’s 36, married, and a father of two.

“If I can do one game a week, that’s a little extra money in my pocket,” Frey said. “And it’s going to help players who are passionate about the sport that they love, and fans and coaches who are passionate about the sport that they love too.”

Frey grew up in a small town near St. Louis and now lives in a small town in west central Illinois.

He said he’s not afraid to step into the fray, in part because he’s worked as a sports reporter.

That gave him an appreciation for the work of officials and the nuances of the game -- and it also made him impartial.

“Every game I go to, I never root for a team to win or lose, I just root for a good game. And you know, you call it as you see it,” Frey said.

He is now licensed to officiate football and basketball, and he signed up for games within 30 miles.

While most people associate high school football with Friday nights or basketball with Friday and Saturday games, officials are needed for weekday games for junior high and junior varsity.

“For me, and probably most other first-time officials, the games I’ve been assigned to so far have all been junior high and sophomore games,” Frey said.

He said he’s not worried about the public criticism that comes with the job.

“I’ve joked with a few folks that I’m on a mission to have as many people yell at me as possible,” Frey said. “I’ve already checked off newspaper readers and my wife, so I’m just adding sports fans to the list.”

But what it’s really about for Frey is keeping traditions alive and giving back to his community.

Plus he said those black and white striped shirts are slimming.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.