Oregon has lost nearly a thousand high school sports officials in the last few years — a drop of almost 30 percent. One of the reasons for the decline is the amount of abuse that officials take from parents and other fans at game, which has only increased during the pandemic. Nearly every state in the country is experiencing the same kind of shortages.
Camron Rust heads the Portland Basketball Officials Association. He says it’s not a good environment for fans or players.
“Nobody should feel unsafe out there or feel attacked, whether it’s the other team’s players or the officials or anybody in the facility. It’s just not appropriate for the game to rise to that level of intensity.”
Rust says in the last couple of seasons, he’s had to ask schools to move 20-25% of their games. But that means the officials trying to cover all those games are working more. He says burnout is a real concern.
“And that’s only going to snowball into a bigger problem. If we burn people out more will quit and the problem gets even worse down the road. That’s what I fear.”
Rust says parents and fans need to be educated about the importance of engaging constructively. And he hopes that a rise in pay over the next couple of years will help recruit new officials for high school athletics.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Between 2018 and 2021 Oregon lost nearly 1000 high school sports officials. It was a drop of almost 30%. Refs and umps for younger athletes, like for Little League games, have also declined. This was happening before the pandemic, due to many factors, including terrible behavior on the part of some parents and fans, but it’s gotten even worse in the last few years. It’s led some games to be canceled, and it means that some high school football games, famously shorthanded as Friday Night Lights, will have to be played on Thursdays or on Saturdays. So why exactly are referees and umpires calling it quits and what would it take to reverse this trend? Jack Folliard is the executive director of the Oregon Athletic Officials Association. Camron Rust is the head of the Portland Basketball Officials Association. They both join me now, welcome to TOL.
Guests: Thank you.
Miller: We will get to the shortage in just a second. But I want to start a little bit with your own stories. Camron Rust first. Why did you want to be a referee for basketball?
Camron Rust: Many years ago, I just enjoyed the game and enjoyed playing, and it worked out as a volunteer effort that I was asked to volunteer to referee some games. And it sort of got me hooked, and did it for a while and enjoyed what I was doing.
Miller: What did you enjoy about it?
Rust: You have the best seat in the gym, you can see the game from a better spot than anybody else. There’s a certain amount of adrenaline that goes with it, in an exciting game. It’s and it’s a way to get some exercise and doing something you love, instead of forcing yourself to exercise. And Jack Folliard, what about you? From what I’ve read before you made it to what was then the Pac 10 you started With freshman high school football and maybe even basketball before that, in the late 60s, early 70′s. What led you to start?
Jack Folliard: Well that it was a long time ago. We actually started out doing Pop Warner football. I was in law school and looking for something to do in the afternoons, and a friend of mine said, ‘hey there’s an article in the newspaper saying they need referees’. So I signed up for both basketball and football, and in those days we made like $8 a game and some gas money, and it set me up for the weekend, for a six pack of beer and fill up my Volkswagen. So like Cam, I also got hooked and worked my way up the ladder.
Miller: Way up the ladder to a college football championship game in 2007?
Folliard: Right, that was the BCS national championship game. I was privileged to be the crew chief for.
Miller: So that makes sense, as a law student doing this thing. You’re on the field, you can get beer money and gas money. What kept you going though?
Folliard: I think like what Cam said, you kind of get hooked. You’re kind of in an arena where people are not watching you directly, but you’re trying to control things, making sure both teams have a fair shake at it. It was something that was kind of a give back for me, when my playing days were over with, keep in shape. And also I built up camaraderie and some great friends up and down the west coast and here locally in Portland through my officiating hobby.
Miller: Camron Rust, how did you get used to being in front of an arena full of fans and often parents, when you knew that at any given time, maybe half the people could be upset about one of your calls?
Rust: It just takes time. At first, I’m a person that’s quite anxious in that new environment. It just takes a few exposures to get comfortable with ‘yeah, this is not anything different really, than the previous version at a little lower level’. You just do it a few times and it becomes comfortable. Some people find that a natural thing to be out there on the big stage, and some people have to work at it.
Miller: Jack Folliard, when you started in Pop Warner or high school football, or even into varsity football, what was parent behavior like? In the early 70s, how good or bad was it?
Folliard: That’s a great question. I’m trying to recall back then, but it’s certainly not as bad as it is now. I mean there’s no question about that. The so-called Little Parent Syndrome is prevalent much more now, in recent times, than back in the seventies and eighties. And I think it’s a cultural thing. I think that’s an issue with authority. There’s no question, but that has contributed to our problems now with the shortage of officials. And I want to say, by the way, this is not just Oregon, this is all over the United States, major, major shortage of officials in all sports.
Miller: I’m glad you brought that up. We’re focusing on Oregon obviously with the two of you. But there have been a number of national articles about this and this is a nationwide shortage and a nationwide phenomenon. Camron Rust, can you give us a sense for what parental or other fan bad behavior can look like right now?
Rust: Well, I’ll start with what good fan behavior looks like: yelling and cheering and making a lot of noises. It’s great. It’s fantastic. It makes the game fun. But when it becomes threatening language, or very harassing or angry language towards both the officials and perhaps the opposing team, it’s really crossed the line, and nobody should feel unsafe out there or feel attacked, whether it’s the other team’s players or the officials or anybody in the facility. It’s just not appropriate for the game to rise to that level of intensity.
Miller: How do you explain this? What we heard from Jack Folliard just now is that this is a cultural thing. It’s an issue of authority. What do you think is behind an increase in fandom that crosses the line at games?
Rust: Well, I would say that social media has probably had a big impact in that. That there’s a lot more video of situations that occur in games that the public is able to see. And even though they’re able to see it, many of them don’t understand what should be happening by the way the rules of the games are written, and they go on what they think should be the case. They get angry because they see what they believe are repeated mistakes when in reality it wasn’t really done incorrectly. It’s just poor understanding. But it’s just so much more exposure now.
Miller: Jack Folliard, should this fall to athletic directors, or say, coaches at a school to nip this in the bud? How much of this needs to be on the shoulders of umpires and referees, as opposed to other people who are in charge in other ways?
Folliard: Yeah, that’s a good point. While we’re working a contest we can hear things that are happening. Sometimes in a large varsity game, basketball, for example, it’s a crowded gym and all the noises kind of drowned out. But in smaller gyms where you have maybe a freshman B-level type of game without many fans, you can hear a lot of stuff. And of course that’s where younger and more inexperienced officials are officiating. Yes, the schools do have a responsibility, frankly. In my experience, the coaches here in Oregon have been great and the athletic director is always very supportive. But again, they have to be present, the athletic directors have to be present. And then it’s kind of like the judgment call, is this particular fan over the line, say in basketball, or is he or she just sort of disagreeing with our calls in a vociferous manner, and we don’t mind, people do scream. I mean, that’s kind of what sports are all about. So it’s sort of hard to explain when it’s too much. And again, in basketball, the Cam well knows, everybody’s close in and you can hear everybody say everything, whereas in football or soccer or baseball, softball, it’s out in the open, the fans are a lot farther away. So whatever they’re saying, it’s very difficult to hear. Bottom line though is that the schools do have to carry responsibility, and they are trying as best they can. There’s quite a few initiatives that are being put out by the OSAA, the governing body of high school athletics and Oregon, to athletic directors and coaches to do whatever they can to keep the bad stuff out of there.
Miller: Cam Rust, it seems like what you’re saying is there’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to sports and rules, sometimes now fans are fueled by social media. What kind of alternative education campaign are you advocating for, to improve the behavior of parents and other fans?
Rust: It would just really help if there was some general understanding that, for one, the rules of the games you see on TV are not the same as the rules of the games you see in your local high schools. Basketball at the NBA level plays under one set of rules, college level play under a different set of rules, and high school plays under yet a different set. They are fundamentally different in some areas. The game is still the game and it’s a lot alike, but they’re not the same. And that fuels a lot of the disagreement that you see at the high school because most people learn what they know about the game from what they see on TV, and that’s not a high school game.
Miller: Jack Folliard, do you see broadly patterns of this kind of fan behavior that ties to the ages of the players? I’m wondering how a Little League or Pop Warner fan behavior would compare to varsity football behavior for example.
Folliard: That’s an excellent observation. I think we find that at the lower levels, Saturday morning soccer for the 10-year-olds and Pop Warner and Little League and all that, there isn’t a lot of authority present. In other words, there’s no game managers, there’s no school oversight, that type of thing. By the way, those officials working those contests are just starting out, like I did a million years ago. We haven’t learned at a young age the skills you have to handle those kinds of things, but the officials then have to take all the sideline chatter. I mean it’s amazing what goes on, Saturday morning soccer for 10-year-old players and 15-year-old referees, what the fans are shouting at those 15-year-olds. That’s a problem that we have, as Cam knows. We try to recruit from those folks that did the smaller levels, and they kind of say, ‘Why would I want to do that? They always scream at you.’
Miller: Man. At some level, this is mind boggling. I mean, I sort of understand it if we’re talking about, you know, a senior in high school and parents think that their kid isn’t getting enough playing time or is being somehow cheated or treated unfairly, and a scholarship is hanging in the balance. You never want to defend bad behavior, but you can sort of understand what a parent would feel the stakes are. If it’s a 10-year-old playing soccer on a Saturday morning, it’s truly baffling what the parent thinks the stakes are.
Folliard: Yeah. And of course I don’t have an answer to that. But again, I know Cam and I don’t want to overemphasize how bad it may be because it’s a wonderful avocation, and we get paid. You have to have a thick skin to be an official, that’s for sure; we all know that. So, yeah, the shortage of officials has been caused – in part – by abusive behavior by fans, but there’s other reasons why we’ve experienced this gradual decline. Then of course the pandemic hit us pretty hard.
Miller: Well let’s turn to that. I don’t mean to scare potential or current officials away – just trying to talk about the realities. But what are some of the other issues for this decline that, as you noted, was exacerbated by the pandemic but predated it. I mean it’s a 10 year decline now. What else is going on?
Folliard: One of the things, Dave, is that we are aging as officials. I think our average age in high school in Oregon is the low 50s or high 40s. Again, when that happens, people are going to retire in the normal course of things. The employment situation being as good as it is now with low unemployment rates also is a factor because, if you’re going to start out officiating at the high school level, you’re gonna start working at 4:00 games. You have to have a kind of a job that’ll get you off at, say, 3:00 to get to the venue. And again, we have the normal attrition: retirements and moving out of town, job situations, family, whatever. So it’s kind of a perfect storm that came together with the pandemic that really made a dent in our numbers.
Miller: Where do you most see the repercussions of the current officials shortage? I mean, how is it affecting schools and schedules?
Folliard: Well, Cam’s in a great position to answer that because he is the commissioner of the Portland Basketball Officials Association. He is responsible for all the assignments. It’s the largest association, over 250 officials, and as you can imagine, tons and tons of assignments. So Cam, you probably can answer that better than I can.
Rust: Yeah. In the last couple of seasons we have had to ask the schools to move about 20-25% of their games away from the traditional Tuesday and Friday schedule that has been the case for many years. We just did not have enough people to make sure all the games were covered at all the different schools. By moving to other days, we were able to get them covered. But one of the ramifications of that is that all of the officials were having to work more days per week. The long-term effects of that could be an increased level of burnout as officials are having to work a greater number of games each year than they have historically done with the smaller numbers. That’s only going to snowball into a bigger problem: If we burn people out, more will quit and the problem gets even worse down the road. That’s what I fear.
Miller: So what can be done about this? One thing I’ve read is that pay for officials is going to be increasing over the next couple of years. Cam Rust, how big a difference would pay itself make?
Rust: I think it’ll make a pretty substantial impact. We are competing for people that have a lot of other options to make money on the side: your Uber and DoorDash and other kinds of gig economy jobs that people now have where they can make side money. We’ve got to fight against those. If we’re paying a lot less than those and people don’t get yelled at in those other positions, people tend to go towards those. The pay officials make now, somebody recently pointed out to me, has over the last few decades generally lagged the rate of inflation or the other wage increases of other positions. We are making perhaps, and I don’t know the numbers specifically on this, but 20-30% less relative to other options than we were 20 or 30 years ago…
Miller: With a 30% increase in screams.
Rust: Yeah. Perhaps yes, even more. [laughs] So, the other options are more enticing to a lot of people. Unless we make up the wage difference and get back to at least competitive with other things, people are going to tend to go elsewhere. That will, in the end, hurt all the games that all the kids are playing.
Miller: What about other aspects of selling this as a job? For both of you it seems like it was a combination of staying in the game, of camaraderie and of some version of community service. I mean it’s a paid job, but you wanted to be a part of these communities in a meaningful, personal way. How do you sell that?
Folliard: I think you hit the major items. I think a lot of us played sports in school or at least observed sports, etcetera, and can no longer participate. You can kind of give back in that sense but also stay in shape. Basketball officials for example, or for that matter of football and other sports as well, you have to be in pretty good shape to run up and down the court or the field. So it helps us keep shape, again the camaraderie. And again there is pay, and hopefully the pay will get better. It’s a win-win situation for us to attract more officials any way we can and also for the schools so they can go back to football games on Friday night like they’re supposed to be.
Miller: Cam Rust, of the officials that go through the training and then do start reffing games, in your case basketball games, how many are still doing it a few years later? I’m wondering about the early attrition rate.
Rust: Right. Yes, our early attrition rate is actually the worst. We will have this year, I’m predicting, 50 to 60 people sign up with our initial registration process to be an official. Of those, probably about half will make it to their first game. Some of them are just testing the water, seeing if it’s something they want to do. They’ll hear what we require for training and the commitment for time, which is not all that great. We have some flexibility with that, a lot of flexibility in fact. But they look at that and some decide it’s not for them. They want to do something else. Then we get down to – of that portion that does their first game – about 60-70% of them will be gone by the third year. It’s the environment that they did not expect it to be like in the games because they’re going into the freshman games with the most inexperienced players – which are fine, the players are not the issue here – the most inexperienced coaches that haven’t yet learned to communicate as a leader on the court necessarily with the officials. And the officials themselves haven’t learned to communicate in reverse. It’s not just one way. And the parents that are also perhaps the most inexperienced with watching the game. All those things conspire together to make it a tough environment for a beginner who, on their first day of the job, is expected to be perfect, and everybody’s yelling at them.
Miller: Although, I mean all of which makes it sound so hard, but the alternative doesn’t make any sense either. You can’t have rookie referees going to the NCAA Championships. They have to learn somewhere, so they’re learning with freshmen in high school.
Rust: Absolutely. Yes, that’s where they have to begin. That’s the only place for them to begin. We have to be aware of that being the case and build an environment that lets them succeed and get to a point where they can be proficient and be excellent at the 4th and 5th year into their experience.
Miller: Camron Rust and Jack Folliard, thanks very much for joining us. This was fascinating.
Folliard: Thank you.
Rust: Thank you.
Miller: Camron Rust is a former state rules interpreter. He is now commissioner of the Portland Basketball Officials Association. Jack Folliard is the executive director of the Oregon Athletic Officials Association, a long time college football referee.