OAKWOOD — There’s a potential crisis gripping football fields throughout the state. Fans may not notice it on first inspection but a closer look reveals a front-and-center issue that threatens to change the landscape of the game itself, especially at the high school level.
And it has nothing to do with the raging concussion/health debate enveloping football.
This is all about referees, or the lack thereof.
Game officials' numbers are dwindling; the average age of those currently donning white-and-black stripes is rising; and recruitment of future referees is at an alarmingly low rate. Tim Tipton, president of the Lanier Football Officials Association based in Hall County, said it has been a growing concern over the last few years.
“Two years ago (in 2015) we had enough guys to staff 12 varsity games in our association on a given night. Now we can realistically only handle 10 games,” he said this week while discussing high school rules changes for the 2017 season. “I don’t know if it’s critical mass yet but we’re definitely in a crisis mode when you think about how many schools we have just in this area. And we’re not the only association that is having trouble finding people who want to do this.”
The Lanier Association handles games in all of Hall and Forsyth counties, which comprises almost 20 schools in those two counties alone. Lanier also handles Commerce city, Habersham, Stephens, White, Rabun, Lumpkin, Dawson, Towns, and Union counties.
Tipton, who played at Johnson High in the late 1970s and early 80s, explained that the various associations around the state charged with staffing weekly games -- whether it be middle school, junior varsity, or varsity -- typically want six-man crews. He said the speed of the modern game dictates they really need seven. Some associations only have enough for five-man crews, however.
“You have teams on Friday nights running 80 to 90 plays with five receivers. Even with six (referees) you don’t have enough eyes to be able to watch all of them,” Tipton said. “Plus, with teams like Gainesville that don’t huddle you only have 10 to 12 seconds to count players, check eligible receivers, substitutions, all of the things you have to do before a play is even run. It’s not like the days of 30 years ago when everyone ran the ball. Now everyone is throwing it 50 times a game.”
Tipton said the speed of the more wide-open passing attacks, designed to wear down opposing defenses, also brings fitness and, unfortunately, age into the equation for current referees.
“Right now the average age of the guys just in our association is around 50. Most of us are still in pretty good shape but there are some of us that can’t handle being in certain spots on the field because of how fast the game is moving,” he said. “That means we have to shuffle guys around, and that’s one of the reasons we have had to drop from manning 12 games to just 10 games.”
A lack of referee numbers, Tipton said, could be more troubling for the future of the sport than any perceived lack of numbers of the actual players. That’s where the “crisis mode” comes in for Tipton and probably most of the other associations around the state. Applications and interest from those wanting to get into the referee side of the game have been on a decline “for several years,” Tipton said. It has prompted Tipton and the Lanier Association to alter its current membership policies.
“We have 105 officials right now and we need 125 to be able to staff every game in our area. Most of the new guys we have gotten in the last three to four years have been in their 40s already,” he said. “So for the coming 2018 season, which we start taking applications for in February or March, we will be waving the fee in half for anyone in the 18- to 28-year-old range who wants to join. We need younger guys. The future of the game could be at stake in the next five to 10 years if we don’t get more younger guys to get into this aspect of the game.
“I’m 54 right now and I’ve been doing this for 32 years. I still love doing this. We have a couple of guys in their 70s that are still out on the field on Friday nights. But eventually everyone that refs gets to a point where they won’t be able to do it anymore.
“What I see coming is that because of a lack of number of referees, we may see down the road having to play games on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at the varsity level because we just won’t be able to staff enough games statewide for everyone to play primarily on one night of the week. Of course, that would then change when the middle school and JV games would be played. Who knows what would happen if we got to that point. And it could if things don't change.”
For anyone interested in becoming a referee they can click on the Lanier Football Officials Association website for more information.