Referee shortage looms over high school sports as season kicks off

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WAUWATOSA, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The return of high school sports is celebrated throughout the state of Wisconsin, but a shortage of referees is a cause for concern for some as the new season kicks off.

"This is a great year coming up," WIAA Assistant Director Tom Shafranski told CBS 58. "We have all kinds of hope and promise that we're really looking at as far as the WIAA is concerned."

The previous couple of years have been challenging for high school sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The start of the new season is appreciated even more among student athletes and parents after limited competition because of coronavirus, highlighting the benefits of athletics for children's physical, mental and emotional well-being.

But the impact of the pandemic lingers in the form of a referee shortage. Many older officials retired during the pandemic due to health concerns or other reasons. That has left the current pool of available officials depleted.

"Many of these crews, not only are working one or two but many times three or four games in a week and our athletic directors know the need for flexibility in moving games to Thursday nights and Friday nights and Saturdays are necessary," Shafranski explained.

The WIAA said they saw a significant drop in just a few years in the number of registered licensed officials in the state, going from 9,249 in the 2019-2020 school year down to 6,071 in the 2021-2022 year.

"There was a shortage there, not as bad, pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, that put an exclamation mark on that shortage," said Barry Mano, the founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials. "We need to get the warm bodies back because without us you're not having sports."

Mano said on top of pandemic reasons, many have left officiating because of abuse from parents and spectators.

"The bad behavior being exhibited towards officials has never been worse," Mano said. "That is driving men, women and young people out of the ranks."

Mano said the abuse has gotten to a point where he believes stiffer penalties for parents and spectators should be considered.

"We might have to put a line in the sand that says to the parents, because they're the problem, parents [and] fans, if you act out in a certain way, your kid's not going to be able to participate," Mano said. "I don't even like saying it but I don't know what else we can do."

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