It was a nine-point semifinal game in the sectional round of the state tournament. The teams were playing on a neutral court before a nearly packed house. The winner would come back the next night to play the host school for the sectional championship.
With 1:13 on the clock, the designated home team – the trailing team in this game – took a full timeout. Until this point, it had been a rather routine game, but everything changed in that moment.
The host school public-address announcer asked the crowd to direct its attention to the north end of the gym to the official standing there. He told the crowd this was the official’s last game after 40 years of service to high school sports. The crowd responded with polite applause, and a few even stood. Coaches and players also paused to acknowledge the official. A couple of the assistants even waved in recognition. His two partners moved toward the recognized official for a handshake and pat on the back.
It was in that moment that reality finally sank in for the official: This was his last game! He would walk off the court and pack his bag one final time. At home, the uniform and equipment would be cleaned and packed away in the attic. Was he really ready? Could he really walk away? Could he survive without having a sports season for which to prepare? Was it really his time?
How and when an official makes his or her decision about retiring is unique to each individual. For some officials it comes down to physical ability to keep up with the game. For other officials, increased family or business responsibilities prompt the decision. A change in an official’s ratings or tournament rankings may push him or her toward retirement. An important factor for many officials is they simply aren’t having fun anymore. What will be the reason for you?
Age or years of experience are not automatic predictors of an official’s retirement. Men and women with less than 10 years of experience walk away. Some have been working for more than 50 years and are still active at a high level. A large group of officials don’t retire but reduce their schedules or the level of games they work. This is really semi-retirement, but it is an option for the official who just can’t make a clean break.
The best scenario for an official’s retirement is that he or she knows it is the right time and makes the decision independently. While walking away is never easy, it is better than being forced out. Some officials’ retirements were caused by an assigner or association administrator telling them they were done. That isn’t a pleasant situation.
In states where officials schedule their own games, they may find that schools will no longer hire them. That is the difficult message that they are retired. A truly sad experience comes when schools approach other officials suggesting that they tell one of their associates that he or she should retire. It is a no-win situation for everyone involved in that conversation.
In a recent survey, veteran officials who retired on their own terms, almost universally say that once they had those first thoughts, the decision came rather quickly. More than a dozen officials indicated it was five years or less from the time they thought about retirement until their last game. Some staggered their retirement with one sport a year over time. Others quit everything at once. The key piece of information from these discussions is that retiring from the officiating ranks is not a “spur of the moment” decision. In nearly every case, the official was still enjoying the game and felt he or she were keeping up with the pace and still being requested by schools and assigners. Each felt that a proactive decision was better than hearing he or she should have retired sooner.
Once the thought of retirement from officiating crosses your mind, it is important to discuss the situation. Those conversations should include a spouse or life partner and perhaps children as they have been involved in your career. Secondly, speaking with your crew or partner officials should be a priority. Your decision will affect them in the long term. Assigners and association people may be included in later conversations, depending on your relationship with them.
The list of considerations is too long to list here. Some questions the veteran officials who have completed the retirement process ask themselves are; “Am I close to working a state championship? How many years ahead do I have games booked? Does my crew have a replacement in mind? How long can I physically hold up? Can I take the travel required to get to and from games? Can I still deal with the increasing disrespect of the fans? Should I retire from officiating at the same time I retire from my job?” You will have your own questions that only you can answer.
Retiring from officiating is a very personal decision. An official may seek input from many sources, but the decision is ultimately his or hers. While the decision is not irreversible, it is final in most all cases. Retired officials have found that trying to get back in is very difficult. The schools and assigners often have an “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy that is hard to break through when reentering the officiating world.
The official mentioned in the opening of this article had made the decision five seasons earlier and he had announced the decision four seasons earlier. Since he worked in a state in which he booked his own games, he could inform schools over time, not accept games past his retirement year and prepare his crews and partners. Many schools and fellow officials encouraged him to hang on for a few more seasons but he stood firm. During the last season, schools and fellow officials offered a behind-the-scenes “thank you” and recounted a story from the past. A few of his fellow officials provided small gifts in the locker room after completing their final game together. The official was provided the game ball from his last girls basketball game and boys basketball game. All in all, it was the right time for his decision and a pleasant conclusion to a satisfying career.
Is it time for you? Only you can decide. When is the time to think about retiring? Again, only you can decide. The important thing is to take time after each season to review. Noticing you feel or think differently about that sport or that season will help lead to the bigger discussion. Don’t wait until people are hinting to you that retirement would be a good idea.
As I sit and look at that final game ball surrounded by that final game whistle, I can smile. I miss my partners and the game, but retirement was the right choice for me. Now, I just need to see how my wife reacts to my being home an extra 120 nights per year.
Dave Sheets is a longtime volleyball, football and basketball official in Indiana. He is the former chair of the NFHS Officials Publications Committee and current editor of the Officials webpage.