MACON, Ga. — 2020 has been a year unlike any other, and like most industries, referees have taken a hit. Even before this year, there was already a national shortage and the Georgia High School Association said they're doing their best to keep their referee talent and bring in new blood.
Rickey Crawford has been a high school basketball referee for more than 30 years and says they have to take the great parts of being an official with the not so great.
"You're gonna get some rowdy fans, but I guess that comes with years, you have to overlook that. I've grown. I really don't pay them any attention, really," Crawford said.
It can be a thankless job even without a pandemic raging on and the disease is affecting already dwindling numbers. Ernie Yarbrough, assistant executive director of the GHSA, said there is about a 14-15% decrease in the number of football referees.
"I can speak for our association, we've heard about some of the rest of them. Everybody, we have just about enough to cover now with the pandemic," Crawford said.
The GHSA adjusted schedules, eased restrictions on training and incentivized referees with more pay and better recognition. Both state and national surveys of officials say slander on social media and rude fans at games makes it easy to turn down the job.
"Officials now, they officiate in a fish bowl. Everything they do is videoed. Everything they do is scrutinized publicly on social media, so it takes a lot tougher person to stick with it now, especially at the high school level," Yarbrough said.
Yarbrough said that can make it tough to bring in new talent, but some are braving the storm, like six-year vet and former Army soldier, Quaniece Spearman.
"You gain a lot of transferable skills that you can use off the court, from conflict resolution, being personable with coaches and players. There's a lot of life skills in officiating," Spearman said.
Thanks to her military background, a few rowdy fans don't bug Spearman, nor will the pandemic because she ultimately remembers her purpose.
"Our purpose is to provide service to allow those student athletes to showcase their skills within a certain set of rules," Spearman said.
Yarbrough says Georgia is number two nationally in recruiting new officials to their training programs. He hopes refs like Crawford can leave the games in good hands of the next generation like Spearman.
"I love to serve this game, you know, and I think anyone who has a love for this game, I think that's probably the primary reason a lot of officials are still out here," Spearman said.
Spearman said she wants to eventually refereeing in the NCAA Women's Final Four. Yarbrough said the GHSA is going as far as recruiting people to be officials as early as high school.