Kansas, Missouri facing shortage of referees for youth and high school sports

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Schools across Kansas and Missouri are facing an issue that’s also plaguing schools across the country: a shortage of referees.

“It’s a lot of fun to see the kids succeed,” said Gary Meyer, a high school basketball official. “A lot of kids, you go to places and see them as a freshmen and then as a senior, and they better themselves. It’s neat to see that. That’s the satisfaction I get out of it.”

Meyer said he’s been officiating basketball games for 12 years. It’s a job he said he loves, but it’s one that’s getting harder to do because of his age and due to unruly parents in the stands.

“You have to have tough skin around all these crowds and everything, with people yelling and screaming different things at you,” Meyer said.

Rob Davis is the activities director at Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia. Several of his duties include training officials and coaches as well as scheduling officials to cover various sports.

But he’s aware of the issues many in his position face in recruiting and retaining younger officials.

“There’s a part of me that, even though it makes my job difficult, sometimes I understand why folks get out of this,” Davis said. “The problem we have is — you see it at the high school level, but we also see it at the junior high level, and that’s where those young guys and gals need to come in and do it in a risk-free environment where they can grow and become better officials. If they are constantly getting berated by our spectators, they aren’t going to do it very long.”

Jason West of the Missouri State High School Activities Association said the average age of the more 5,500 registered officials is over 50 years old. The combination of aging officials and fewer newcomers to replace them is a recipe for future problems.

“There’s a trickle down effect with the officials and the coaches’ relationship,” he said. “Players, fans see how the coach’s are dealing with the officials and how they are communicating back. Once they see there’s not the adversarial relationship, that expands and creates a domino effect.”

Francine Martin, assistant executive director of the Kansas State High School Association, said 10 years ago KSHSA had 2,150 registered basketball officials. Today, that number is down to 1,804.

Martin said it’s a struggle to assign referees for all sports, but recently the organization struggles most with filling spots in soccer, baseball and softball. That’s an issue she hopes will resolve with better awareness of how fans and coaches are treating the officials.

Officials, such as Meyer, hope we don’t forget why fans are truly attending the games.

“I think the bigger the games, it’s exciting, and you hear some things like that. But you’ve got to realize that the kids aren’t responsible for it, and you’re there to officiate the kids, and that’s what counts the most,” he said.

To register to become an official, you can visit kshsaa.org or mshsaa.org and click on the officials tab.

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