Tom Knight is in his 11th year as a high school and small college basketball official in the Quad-Cities, and it has happened to him a few times.
He will be walking to his car after refereeing a game and suddenly realize that he’s not alone; that disgruntled fans from the game are giving an unwanted, uncomfortable escort.
“They’ll be walking with you, telling you what a piece of (expletive) you are and ‘You’re a (expletive) homer,’’’ Knight said. “I’ve had them say ‘(Expletive) you, you’re a piece of (expletive).’ I’ve had to turn around and say ‘Please stop right there. If you step any more towards me, I’ll feel threatened, and I’ll need to call the police, so please stop right there.’’’
Knight also has received text messages from people he doesn’t know, expressing similar sentiments in similarly colorful language following games.
“You get home, and your spouse says ‘Why do you do this for 80 bucks?'" he said.
The truth is, fewer and fewer people are choosing to do it — not just in basketball and not just in the Quad-Cities.
An increasing shortage of high school athletic officials in all sports and in all parts of the country is creating very real concerns the trend could evolve into a major crisis for athletics at various levels.
It’s not only because of the abuse that officials absorb. Time, work and family commitments, along with low pay, are leading fewer people into officiating and prompting many to leave it.
Lewie Curtis, the director of officials for the Iowa High School Athletic Association, said he has 4,465 officials registered to work all sports for this school year. Seven years ago, there were 5,274. That’s a 15 percent drop.
“Pretty alarming," Curtis said. “Especially if that trend continues, it’s extremely alarming. Hopefully, that trend doesn’t continue. That’s the challenge."
Chuck Brittain, the coordinator of basketball officials for the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, said it’s already a crisis in remote corners of the state. He said some of the less populated counties in Iowa have only one or two licensed officials in the entire county.
“I think it’s critical from the standpoint that, as we continue to get more and more of the older people retiring from officiating, we get less and less of the younger,’’ Brittain said. “And when the old guard over the next five or 10 years goes away, will there be enough youngsters to take the spots? That’s a massive concern.’’
Curtis describes the officiating pool as “an elderly population.’’ When he first joined the IHSAA nearly two years ago, he said, his research indicated that 40 percent of all officials were over the age of 50.
“If you look at the ages of the officials, you don’t see a lot between 20 and 40," said Jon Clark, the president of the Quad-City Officials Association. “You do see a larger number above 50. So we’ve been trying to target younger officials, former athletes, people in that age group that still have a love for the game who may have other responsibilities in life but still want to get back into it."
The problem, however, isn’t just finding new officials. The bigger problem is keeping them.
In 2013, 782 new officials registered with the IHSAA, Curtis said. Some of them did multiple sports, so it actually amounted to 970 new spots. By 2016, only 328 of the 970 were still officiating. In other words, two-thirds quit within three years.
The national numbers are even more dire. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 80 percent of the people who begin officiating quit before their third year.
“It’s always going to be a recruiting problem because you have to recruit them, but it’s also a retention problem, and we have to figure out how can we retain them," Curtis said.
Clark said that once officials stay with it for three years, they seem to be in it for the long haul.
“Those first few years are kind of the head-scratching years," he said. “Will they stay or not? Will they find a passion for it and keep going?"
Now a problem primarily at the high school level and below, there is a chance the shortage could affect higher levels. Rick Boyages, supervisor of basketball officials for the Big Ten, sees the potential for a trickle-up effect.
“It hasn’t happened yet, but I think over the next decade, it could," he said.
Getting ‘beat up’
The lack of sportsmanship on display by fans, coaches and athletes isn’t the only reason people get out of officiating, but it is a major factor.
“It’s a huge problem,’’ said Mike Botts, who assigns officials for most sports in the Mississippi Athletic Conference and for some in the Western Big Six. “I don’t know if the right word is to say they get beat up because they don’t get beat up physically, but they get verbally abused by fans and coaches so much that they don’t think it’s worth the effort to stay in it.’’
There have been very few instances of officials being physically harmed. In 2003, a basketball official was punched by a fan who came to the officials’ locker room following a game at Davenport Central.
But those stories are rare. Mostly, the abuse is verbal.
“You see it enough that I just let it roll off my back,’’ said Roger Youngblut, of Davenport, who has been officiating for more than 20 years. “You better have some pretty thick skin if you’re going to do this.’’
“People do get very emotional at games,’’ Clark said. “We all love that about sports, the emotional part of it, but at some point some people — a very small number of people — take it too far and ruin it, not only for the officials at the game and the players, but probably even the people sitting next to them.’’
Brittain said officials only get what they allow.
“And I think part of the problem is that we’ve allowed too much," he said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. We’re kind of letting it get to that point … Some of it is just society. I don’t know what you do about it.’’
‘Just not any fun’
The general consensus is that verbal abuse from fans and parents is worse at the lower levels. And since most officials start out working elementary school and junior high games, they sometimes are being thrown into some of the most hostile atmospheres from the very beginning.
“I’ve gone to a couple Little League games where the parents and fans were much more vocal than what you hear at the college level,’’ said Ken Ferris, who has been working baseball and basketball games in the area for more than 40 years. “And most of the guys working at that level are just young officials getting started.
“It’s no wonder they decide to do something else. It’s just not any fun.’’
Knight said he often wishes he could pull aside the parents he sees screaming at officials at junior high games and give them a dose of perspective.
“These are seventh-grade officials," he said. “They’re learning, just like the kids are. There may be mistakes you’ll see, but they’re trained to learn, and they’re going to progress. If they were really awesome, they’d be doing the Iowa game tomorrow night at Wisconsin. But they’re learning, just like the kids."
Ferris’ philosophy always has been to mix in a little humor when coaches or fans complain.
“My motto is: I thrive on rejection," he said. “That’s what officiating is about, being rejected all the time."
He knows that half the people always are going to disagree with what he calls. He’s learned to disregard the complaints along with the few compliments he gets, mostly from coaches.
“When you get a compliment, it’s like cotton candy," Ferris said. “It looks good, but when you get it in your mouth, it just kind of dissolves into nothing. That pat on the back probably means they’re working on you for a future call."
As mentioned, abuse and lack of sportsmanship aren’t the only reason for the shortage of officials.
When Curtis studied the losses among so many who signed up in 2013, he tried — with only minimal success — to get those who dropped out to tell him why.
A majority of them cited job responsibilities and family commitments, he said.
“What I gleaned from that small sample size was there’s going to be some things that happen with newly registered officials that we have zero control over," he said. “I have no control over whether they get a new job or not or whether they get a promotion or whether they get more responsibility or whether they have kids. That’s just going to be the way it is."
Since most officials have a daytime job from which they earn their primary income, it’s almost impossible for them to get to a 4 p.m. junior high basketball game or a 10 a.m. freshman baseball game.
“Those lower-level games, especially in baseball and softball, are earlier in the day," said Botts, of the Mississippi Athletic Conference. “If you have a career, you’re not going to be able to make those. So you have to have guys who are either young guys just out of college or in college to do those."
As those young guys get older, though, they tend to take on more responsibilities in their jobs and/or begin to have families. Often, it no longer seems worthwhile to give up time for a relatively modest amount of money.
“The pay level for varsity and sub-varsity sports is pretty good, but a lot of guys feel they’re not being paid enough," Botts said. “They don’t see that part of this also is giving back to those sports and being involved.
“It’s just a different generation coming on. I don’t think they see the need to do that — to give back to the sports or to be involved in the sports."
Joe Lopez, the vice president for basketball for the Quad-City Officials Association, said he also thinks some young officials don’t want to pay their dues and work their way up to where they can make more money doing higher-level games.
Knight, for example, has progressed from junior high to high school to small college games, but it has taken a decade to get there.
“For some, they’re just looking for the fast track to try to get up to the college level," Lopez said. “They don’t have the patience to stay with it."
No one has come up with one fool-proof way to keep the pool of officials from being drained.
But everyone has an opinion.
“We need to learn how to recruit better," said Tim Seward, another vice president of the QCOA. “We’re really not doing good recruiting. That’s part of it, and I think that just starts with talking to high school kids: ‘Hey, if you’re going to college, you should look into officiating your sport.'"
Amy Ochkie, one of the few female officials in the area, said she is constantly talking to the students in the classes she teaches at Moline High School, urging them to officiate.
She said Augustana College makes an effort to get students involved in officiating intramural games with the hope that some of them will continue after college.
Boyages, of the Big Ten, said student involvement is being taken to another level at some schools, including Ohio State. Students there can take an actual class in officiating before getting involved in intramural games.
“I think the student population is where we need to hit," Ochkie said. “I know in volleyball we’re seeing a huge break in the age of officials. We have some really old officials and then some young ones and not a lot in-between. And a lot of the young ones we‘re getting get out after a year or two."
Ochkie said there also is a need to better train officials.
In both Iowa and Illinois, becoming an official amounts to simply taking a test and going through an online clinic — without ever being taught what to do in a competitive environment.
“Through the years I’ve worked with a lot of officials, and a lot of them don’t hang around very long," Ochkie said. “They don’t get a lot of training, and they get thrown out there to do things they’re not ready for, yet.
“They should be pairing them with veteran officials, so they can work with somebody who really knows what they’re doing. Too often, we stick two new officials together."
Both Brittain and Curtis said there is a need to set up mentoring programs in which older officials work with younger ones. Curtis said it’s already being done in wrestling in Iowa and hopefully will be expanded into other sports.
Some officials have taken it upon themselves to mentor younger officials.
“Whenever possible, I try to work with some newer guys, so I can try to help them learn," Ferris said. “The challenge always is managing the game without appearing to manage it."
Ochkie said the mentoring is critical to keeping young officials from becoming too frustrated.
“If I hadn’t had good mentors in the beginning, I would have quit basketball right away," she said. “There is so much to learn about trying to get into the right position and where to go, what to do. It’s a fast-moving game, and you don’t have time to think. I had some really good guys I worked with who brought me along. If it hadn’t been for them, I would have quit."
Brittain is optimistic that high school athletics never will get to the point where the number or the quality of games will be compromised by a lack of qualified officials.
“What happens going forward?" he asked. "I’m kind of one of these guys who thinks we get to that point where it’s that short, there will be people who will step up and take those places. But maybe there won’t be. I don’t know.
“There will be some people who will be more fearful. I’m not fearful. I have hope that the people will step up."
He hopes there will be more people like Tom Knight, officiating in the Quad-Cities for his 11th year. A former Davenport Assumption athlete who served as the manager for the basketball team at Northern Iowa, Knight was coaxed into officiating by Rick Hartzell, then-athletic director at UNI and a Division I basketball official.
Knight is glad he did it and can’t envision himself not officiating — in spite of those nights when fans find fault with everything he does.
“Why do you stay with it? You love the game," he said. “At some point, you can’t play it forever, so it’s a nice way to stay around the game."