Illinois High School Association partnership aims to improve treatment of referees
PEORIA, Ill. — Another academic year of high school sports will get into full swing later this month. But the Illinois High School Association is grappling with a shrinking number of game officials, largely due to the increasingly poor treatment they’ve endured from fans, athletes and coaches.
The IHSA has entered a new partnership with a Lombard-based organization called Officially Human that focuses on reducing negative behavior and elevating respect for officials statewide. But some skepticism remains about how effective these efforts will be.
Game incident reports from 2022-23 showed a significant rise in coach and player ejections from the year before. Additionally, an IHSA survey of all licensed officials conducted early this year showed 62% identifying poor sportsmanship and fan behavior as the biggest challenge they face.
“That really opened our eyes and made us acknowledge that as an association, we’ve got to do more to support officials – not only when they’re working at any kind of contests, but also away from that,” said IHSA Associate Executive Director Kurt Gibson, who oversees the association’s Officials Department.
“We’ve probably not done enough to support officials over the past five to 10 years, and so we’re really trying to put in play some initiatives that, I say, is really trying to play the long game," he said. "We’re not going to get out of this situation that’s been created overnight. We got into this over a period of time and it’s going to take us a while to turn the tide.”
So why hasn’t the IHSA done more in recent years to address this problem?
“I don’t know why we weren’t a little more aggressive in the space when we probably needed to be,” Gibson said. “I do think the pandemic accelerated some of what we’re seeing now, and it accelerated it in the sense of I believe that the pandemic played a big part in driving some officials out of the space, and with fewer officials that just put more pressure on sort of this ecosystem for high school sports.”
Brenda Hilton has spent more than two decades working with officials in college sports across multiple levels and founded Officially Human in 2019. She said better communication is the essential factor behind official human and its “Elevate Respect” program.
“We have to start communication; we have to have more of it. We have to make sure that parents, coaches administrators know that this really is a problem,” Hilton said. “Officially Human was founded to restore respect to sports officials, and I’ll be honest and say that when we first founded it, we didn’t know how we were going to do it. (We) spent a couple of years talking to people all over the country and all over the world on: ‘all right, what is it going to take for us to raise this awareness, have more conversations?’ and really piggyback on what state associations are doing, what the NCAA is doing, what everybody in the country is doing in trying to retain and recruit new officials.”
Officially Human’s Elevate Respect platform involves implementing a comprehensive package of digital education, organizational support and communication strategies to address poor fan behavior.
An official’s perspective
Don King of East Peoria has been calling football, basketball and baseball games around the area for more than 50 years. He’s the president of the Central Illinois Umpires Association and the Central Illinois Football Alliance, and he handles scheduling of high school officials in all three sports for the Big 12 and the Mid-Illini conferences.
King said he’s skeptical the IHSA’s as efforts with Officially Human human will produce the desired outcomes.
“I like to think it will, but nothing has helped. Everybody’s tried everything to get people to behave — and I mean everything — and nothing seems to be working,” King said. “Right now, it’s just officiating is a very tough business; it’s hard to recruit and very hard to retain. This is great they’re making this effort; hopefully it works. But I think it’s a long shot.”
Gibson said the IHSA has seen a sharp decline in registered officials over the past decade, estimating the organization is about 4,000 licenses below an ideal amount. The IHSA reports it distributed about 18,000 licenses to more than 11,000 individuals for the 2022-23 school year.
“Our association was fortunate last year: we had a nice rebound in people coming back into officiating in Illinois,” Gibson said. “But that one-year positive spike still has not offset the last seven to eight years in the number of decreasing licenses that we’ve offered.”
King said he understands why.
“It’s not a popular thing to get people involved in,” King said. “I got new guys to work this summer in baseball, and after three weekends, two of them go, ‘Ah, I don’t want to do this anymore; this is … these people are idiots.’ And I go, ‘Yeah you know, well, I told you that this probably is going to happen. You just have to learn to deal with it.’ But the choice is they don’t want to deal with it [because] it’s just easier to go do something else.”
King said attitudes toward officials have grown more volatile and threatening. He said a recent youth travel baseball tournament he oversaw resulted in 14 fan ejections, six coach ejections and four player ejections — and the misbehavior is reaching a crisis point.
“Officials are very discouraged right now, as a whole,” King said. “The average football official is over 60 years old, OK? Right now in our local associations for football, I have 414 officials available to me. I probably have less than 10% that is under 40 years old. So, when the older guys which will now eventually start weeding out, we’re just not getting them replaced. There’s an official shortage everywhere and that’s because people just aren’t getting in.”
Hilton said an Officially Human survey of 15 state high school associations in 2019 received 19,000 responses, with only 12% coming from individuals under age 34.
“So that pipeline is gone, and of those 19,000 responses, a pretty good percentage of them said that they would be quitting officiating in the next six years. So, we really are in a crisis mode here,” she said, adding that the biggest takeaways from the survey were that officials just want a voice and that they want more education for parents.
“We all know that 95% of the fans in the stands are good, they’re positive. They may chirp a little bit at a call here and there,” Hilton said. “What we want to do is empower that 95% to become 95.5%. There’s so many great stories out there on officials, if we can start to highlight those and minimize the glamorization of some of these bad stories … if people understood the brotherhood and sisterhood of officiating, I think more people would sign up to do it because it’s a very unique group.”
King said he’s not sure what possible approaches will reduce the negative treatment directed at officials.
“Making fans accountable for their actions, making coaches accountable for their actions, making players more accountable for their actions, I think that would be a big plus,” King said. “But fans that are bad, they just continue to keep showing up and there’s nothing the officials can do. We can’t tell who can come in the gym or who can’t come in the gym.”
Gibson said recruitment and retention of sports officials is critical to the long-range success of the IHSA, and its ability to continue the competitions.
“Until we can have that honest conversation, I really don’t see how we can start to turn the corner in terms of retaining officials for that longer stretch,” Gibson said. “So that’s going to be a key part of this, and the Officially Human platform is going to allow us to do that because we’re going to be able to have a conversation with our schools. We’re going to be able to use the platform and some other initiatives to recognize officials."
“We’re going to be able to then highlight things that officials are doing away from the officiating space, to try to humanize them - get people to understand that officials are people too," he said. "Without people like sport officials who give their time, we’re not going to be able to play the number of contests that are that our membership wants to play. So, that’s going to be the first piece. But we’ve also got to use this opportunity to consider whether or not we need to create stricter penalties for folks, including fans, when they’re removed from games for their behavior.”
Hilton said her conversations with numerous people associated with high school sports suggests the pandemic has exacerbated the negative behavior toward officials, just as Gibson mentioned.
“It came up a lot that as we come out of COVID, this is going to be even worse — and when I talk to officials across the country, they concur with that. This is worse. Parents feel like they have lost 1-2 years of competition, their child has lost that,” she said, noting that in most sports, less than 10% of high school athletes move on to NCAA programs.
“The pressure on these officials is going to be even greater," Hilton said. "So, we have to start to really be in front of this to communicate that, ‘hey, this really is just a game.’ Again, Officially Human’s not going to fix this, the NCAA is not going to fix it, any other officiating organization is not going to fix this alone. It’s all of us working together.”
But King maintains his pessimism that the negative behavior and poor treatment can be eradicated because it’s extended beyond just high school sports.
“It’s just it’s been growing, growing, growing, growing, growing, and I just honestly — I hate to say this — but I don’t think it’s ever going to get any better,” King said. “Look at the fan behavior in professional sports, by God. You go to a pro football game, the F-word is out of everybody’s mouth. Even in college sports, it’s the same thing.
“The fan behavior is just so bad, and all you’ve got to do is just go sit in the stands at a game, and you can say, ‘My God, what is wrong with these people?’" he said. "But they just keep letting them back in. I guess they just hope that maybe they’ll just clean it up themselves, but that’s not going to happen. It just hasn’t happened.”