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There’s an officiating shortage in Texas high school football. Here are the consequences.

Texas high school football has an officiating issue.

The Texas Association of Sports Officials is “having trouble” covering all football games in the state, according to the president of TASO football Rod McLain.

Why? TASO is dealing with an officiating shortage. Some games have the minimum number of officials required to continue.

The back judge tosses the ball to the sidelines in the first half of an UIL football game at Keller ISD Stadium in Keller, Texas, Thursday Aug. 31, 2023.
The back judge tosses the ball to the sidelines in the first half of an UIL football game at Keller ISD Stadium in Keller, Texas, Thursday Aug. 31, 2023.

“We’re asking schools to move 40 or more games off of a Friday night onto a Thursday or Saturday so that we can get them covered,” McLain said.

McLain said TASO has been moving games weekly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s become what the organization is accustomed to.

The official calls a penalty in the second half of an UIL football game at Keller ISD Stadium in Keller, Texas, Thursday Aug. 31, 2023.
The official calls a penalty in the second half of an UIL football game at Keller ISD Stadium in Keller, Texas, Thursday Aug. 31, 2023.

In rare cases, TASO has told coaches they don’t have the manpower to send a crew to a junior varsity game. In these situations, coaches have to fill in and officiate.

“That’s not good for the school,” McLain said. “It’s not good for the sport. Coaches should be coaching, not officiating.”

Looking for younger officials

TASO has just under 5,000 officials, which isn’t a drastic change from the amount of officials in 2022. However, demand keeps growing due to the creation of new schools.

“We’re about where we were last year and a little bit ahead of where we were the year before,” McLain said.

McLain said TASO is struggling to hire younger officials.

“Our average age for football officials, it’s in the 40s and 50s,” McLain said. “We’re getting new guys that are coming in when they’re 30m and we would love to have officials joining in their 20s or in their late teens.”

An official picks up a penalty flag in the second half of an UIL football game at Keller ISD Stadium in Keller, Texas, Thursday Aug. 31, 2023.
An official picks up a penalty flag in the second half of an UIL football game at Keller ISD Stadium in Keller, Texas, Thursday Aug. 31, 2023.

“We need to do a better job attracting the younger crowd,” McLain said. “You know, when you’re out on the football field, it’s a lot better than that ‘Madden’ video game that everybody likes to play because there’s a lot more real football, and you learn a lot more about the game.”

One of the ways TASO recruits the youth is through the Students Today are Referees Tomorrow program, also known as START. According to TASO’s website, the program challenges head coaches to encourage three to five graduating players to stay in the game and become officials.

What’s stopping the youth from joining? One explanation is potential officials don’t want to deal with angry coaches, fans and players.

McLain said the younger crowd shouldn’t be scared of being on the receiving end of verbal and physical aggression. He said players and coaches can work on sportsmanship, but officials don’t get yelled at every game.

“It’s not as prevalent as one might be led to believe by what they see on social media,” McLain said.

Thrown into the fire

The newly hired officials that join TASO are often inexperienced. McLain said the rookies are being thrown into the fire due to the shortage; many first year officials work their first game at the varsity level.

“We don’t want that to happen ever,” McLain said. “It’s not fair to those new guys. It’s not fair to the young officials because they’re thrown into the middle of it.”

One official looks on as another calls a penalty in the second half of an UIL football game at Keller ISD Stadium in Keller, Texas, Thursday Aug. 31, 2023.
One official looks on as another calls a penalty in the second half of an UIL football game at Keller ISD Stadium in Keller, Texas, Thursday Aug. 31, 2023.

“That’s how it was,” McLain said. “We were able to go and travel with crews and get that experience that way – watching and observing and helping them out with different things. New officials don’t get that opportunity right now. That’s sad for them, and I wish it could be different because it kind of puts them in a bad situation from the very start.”

If TASO had more officials, they could gradually introduce rookies to the varsity level. Additionally, they could utilize more replacement referees instead of moving officials to different crews after unexpected, last minute dropouts.

TASO is currently accepting applications of prospective high school football officials. For now, they will continue to do their best to manage the consequences of the shortage.