MACON, Ga. — If you've been to any kind of sporting event, then you've also seen the referees and officials that help make the game run smoothly.
They’re your best friend or your worst enemy.
Love them or not, the show can’t go on without officials, and right now, there aren’t enough in the Peach State.
“If it doesn't get better,” GHSA Assistant Executive Director Ernie Yarbrough said, “There's going to be a time when people are going to show up at a basketball arena, there's going to be a huge sign that says, 'No game today, we couldn't get officials.’”
According to the Georgia High School Association, since the COVID-19 pandemic, officiating registrations are down 17% in Georgia, but also down 23% nationwide. However, Yarbrough also notes that registrations in the Peach State are gradually recovering, up 4% over the last year.
High school football games moved away from their traditional Friday night slot, instead to Thursday’s and Saturday’s. In some cases, baseball games have been forcibly rescheduled or canceled at first pitch without notice. Additionally, playoff schedules for many sports are changed to accommodate a limited number of officials who are eligible to work those kinds of events.
But why, then, is this an issue to begin with?
One common theme remains: lack of sportsmanship in all facets of youth sporting events.
“It's a deterrent to young people because they go to games, they see how poor the sportsmanship is,” Yarbrough said. “When it comes time that they may be at the age to where they may consider officiating, they say, ‘Hey, that's not worth it.’”
Buster Hickam is in his 17th year of umpiring and has seen the change happen right before him. He says recruiting officials is difficult enough, but retaining them once they begin work is equally challenging.
“We just don't have a flux of people coming knocking on our door saying, ‘Hey, I want to be like you,’” Hickam said. “It is not a glamorous job. We don't get the credit for a win. We sometimes get the credit for the loss.”
It comes as no surprise that during his visit to the Macon Touchdown Club in April, Georgia Football Head Coach and defending national champion Kirby Smart let us know he agrees.
Smart recently served on an NCAA rules committee in Indianapolis and made some similar discoveries when having the chance to speak with NCAA officials firsthand.
“They said, ‘What was the number one reason why you feel like you don't want to officiate any more,’” Smart said, “And you know what the number one thing was? Lack of sportsmanship. I blame that on myself as a coach and coaches that coach the game, because if you don't demand discipline, if we don't instill that in our teams, our young men, our young women, we'll deteriorate.”
So then it's decided. We're throwing a flag on sportsmanship for players, coaches and, yes, the fans, because more often than not, youth sports aren't there for the money. For many, it’s about their community, the love of the game, and supporting Central Georgia's future stars.
“We've got to remember that these games are for the kids,” Yarbrough said. “These are for the student athletes. When we lose sight of that is when we take it personal and someone sitting in the stands takes it personal that a call didn't go their way.”
While baseball is the focus during the spring, this issue is not unique to any one sport, but rather many sports across many levels of competition.
The GHSA hosts camps across the state of Georgia to train incoming officials on how to handle tough situations on the job. The application can be found under the "officials" tab on their website.
For those interested in becoming officials at any level of competition, Buster Hickam can provide more information. You can email him.