Working at Kitsap Sun for the past 15 years, it’s not often that I find myself saying “this is the first time I’ve seen something like this” when describing an event that I deal with.
These are roughly the words I used when I attended Saturday’s “officials appreciation” barbecue at Bremerton High School. Knights football manager Paul Theriault and track and field coach Daniel McInnis took turns grilling hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken for the approximately 30 referees from various sports that showed up.
Theriault smiled when someone joked that “Coach T” was looking to see fewer penalty flags at next season’s games. In fact, Theriault just wanted to thank the men and women who make high school / youth sports work properly in the West Sound. Without officers, games don’t happen.
“I thought, ‘We’ll do what we can on our part.’ This is a small thing, let’s give some love and maybe we’ll recruit a couple of guys. “
Yes, recruiting was the secondary focus of Saturday’s event, as assignees from different associations attended with the hope of hiring some officials for the first time. Unfortunately, no newbies showed up, which spoke of the difficulty of trying to groom the referees to help support those who already have to carry a heavy load.
Theriault pointed to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations showing that 50,000 high school officials have decided to step down since 2019. Not a surprising number: Last summer, writing about a shortage of referees in Kitsap County , I discovered a Poll from the Association of Sports Officials that referee registration plummeted by 30% in 2021.
“We are running out of referees,” Theriault said.
It may seem hyperbole, but the need for officials at the local level continues to be significant.
Dave Paul, assistant secretary of the Peninsula Football Officials Association, started the 2021 high school football season with 26 referees (up from 41 in 2019). Due to the shortage, Paul asked local schools to adjust schedules, shifting some games to Thursdays or even Saturdays. Paul said it will be the same scenario this fall because he won’t have enough officials to shed on Friday nights.
Joe McKenna, a recipient of the Peninsula Wrestling Officials Association, told me he only had nine officials in the rotation to cover events last winter, including three rookies.
“Literally, during and after every wrestling match, I was trying to recruit,” McKenna said.
Due to the low numbers and the fact that McKenna is his association’s only wrestling referee who has retired, McKenna had to assign himself to work for four events in Forks last season. That’s 270 miles round trip each time for McKenna, who lives in Bremerton.
“It’s a long day,” he said.
The question that McKenna asks himself is one that other referees are confronted with: if I don’t work in this match or tournament, who will do it? It’s a tough question and I wonder how some of our sports would fare when veterans like Paul and McKenna finally decide to hang up. Who will be around to take their place?
Another conversation on Saturday that stands out is the one I had with Dale Newhouse, a Port Orchard retiree who started refereeing in the 1960s. He climbed the charts and eventually found himself working on games for the Pac-8 Conference (now Pac 12). He has also refereed in several professional leagues, including the United States Football League, Arena League, XFL and NFL / NFL Europe.
Newhouse now works for the Washington Officials Association as a critical observer and feedback to officials working on the ground. It is a process that Newhouse enjoys, helping the people who are following in his footsteps to improve.
“I go to high school games and cheer on the third team,” Newhouse said.
If I learned anything on Saturday, it is that we all need to start appreciating the third team better and find ways to increase their numbers.
Jeff Graham covers high school sports for the Kitsap Sun. Reach him at [email protected]