Fear of the unknown leading into the 2020-21 school year threw officials into a quandary that neither a rules book nor a case book could help them navigate. Deciding whether to officiate amid a global pandemic became a personal challenge filled with angst – and sometimes heartbreak – as they contemplated stepping away from an avocation that has provided rewards and satisfaction for decades.
Deb Weinreis of Minneapolis served on a task force in Minnesota that worked with governmental agencies to determine ways to return youth sports safely. She saw firsthand the scientific data and recommended safety protocols.
“When we moved indoors again, the unknowns became magnified,” said Weinreis, a 22-year college and high school official. “I wasn’t quite ready to return. It was fairly apparent for me to take a pause.”
Tom Rasmussen, a 50-year official based in the Twin Cities with service throughout the Upper Midwest, had to consider his own health, but also that of his immediate family, which included his grandchildren. He also weighed the requirements that included arriving dressed to a game, no carpooling and officiating in empty gyms.
“There were just too many hoops to jump through and when the family physician makes a recommendation, you listen,” he said. “Being around young kids keeps you young. I really missed that. I was confident I made the right decision, but now I am back. As I look back, it was a little bump in the road for me.”
Weinreis and Rasmussen weren’t alone. Thousands of officials across the country opted not to officiate for a myriad of reasons. Many officials still are in wait-and-see mode as schools return to learning while the COVID-19 virus remains an international medical threat.
Administrators from state and local associations across the nation are proactively working to not only recruit and retain officials as they typically do, but also encouraging officials who opted out in the 2020-21 school year to return.
The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) is experiencing a decrease of nearly 3,000 officials across its activities in the current school year. The IHSA is trying to bridge that decrease by offering a $50 discount to all school staff members (certified and non-certified) when they license for the first time. The association continues to offer free first-year licenses to high school students who are at least 17 years of age. They also offer free first-year licenses to associations to share with adults in their area that are interested in officiating. Some high schools and colleges are offering officiating classes as part of their curriculum.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Sam Knox, an IHSA assistant executive director who oversees officiating. “I’m confident that officials will do everything in their power to help schools cover their games, just like they did last year in the most unique school year of our lives.”
Just north, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association had an estimated 39 percent of its officiating force drop out last school year, according to Pete Vrieze, commissioner of the Middle Border Conference in the northwestern part of the state. He said in his area about 10 percent of officials chose not to work and the larger numbers originated in Milwaukee and Madison.
“I burned out some of my officials because they had to work so much to cover all of those games; by the end of the season, they had had enough,” said Vrieze, a high school and college official for more than four decades. “The concerns – and ultimately the decisions – to not officiate are legitimate and heartfelt. Masking was a big thing and so was the concern about bringing the virus home. We are grateful for the officials who have helped us through this situation, but we continue to engage in dialogue with those we’d like back.”
On a Saturday morning last month, Vrieze stopped by Somerset (Wisconsin) High School to watch a soccer game. While there, the always jovial Vrieze visited with parents and alums of the two participating schools. His visits produced two soccer officials.
“I didn’t go to that game with the intent on recruiting officials,” he said. “The opportunity to share the joys of officiating and the rewards of serving schools became a talking point and it took off with great interest. I think as administrators we need to be aware of our surroundings and our audiences.”
While some state associations like the Missouri State High School Activities Association saw a modest decline in registered officials of just seven percent, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) experienced a 20 percent decrease compared to pre-pandemic registrations.
Jason Nickleby, the coordinator of officials for the MSHSL, said “officials that were on the fence about returning to officiating, but COVID put them over the line of returning.” Nickleby, a Big Ten Conference football official, is mindful, too, that COVID opt-outs also coincided with the officials who didn’t return because of family or work commitments, which is an annual occurrence.
Like most state associations, Minnesota accentuates the positives in officiating. They include an online recruitment forum during each of the three sports seasons, which is a risk-free way for prospective officials to hear from experienced officials about the benefits of officiating and steps to take in a successful officiating journey. The sessions are popular with veteran officials as they re-engage annually in the avocation while also seeking opportunities to give back by assisting newer officials.
“We work really hard to promote the reasons that officiating high school sports is so great and that officiating is an outstanding opportunity to participate in the sports we love,” Nickleby said. “Student-athletes need the camaraderie and fellowship that activities and athletics provide. This has been especially true over the past 18 months. Officials need that, too. Without officials, students don’t have these opportunities to make memories of a lifetime.”
Moving forward, administrators say they have learned lessons in patience and flexibility.
“Amid the challenges, we have learned to not let frustrations overcome you,” Vrieze said. “I felt like school administrators, everyone from the superintendents to principals to activities directors to coaches were the best to work with through this. I give kudos to all of them.”
Said Nickleby: “I am optimistic about officiating every year because of the incredibly talented and dedicated men and women that don the uniform in service to your young people. In terms of the pandemic, we are in a spot where increased vaccinations should put us on a path to great success and growth. We hope that veteran and new officials will be along for the journey when they are ready.”
John Madsen, a Minnesota-based official, is thankful for the patience of assignors. He worked an abbreviated football schedule in 2020, primarily because the game assignments were outdoors. In November, he and his wife welcomed their first child. For the health of their newborn, he decided to sit out the basketball season. While he is working football this fall, he remains undecided on his return to basketball.
“Once my wife and I spent time talking through it, it made sense for me to take the year off,” he said. “It allowed me to be there for our son and remain safe for his sake. As I look back, I am really appreciative of the officiating community for being supportive and understanding some of the situations we were going through.”
Tim Leighton is the communications coordinator of the Minnesota State High School League and a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.