Money is not the main reason for the lack of new blood in the ranks of officiating. That distinction belongs to sportsmanship, or more appropriately, poor sportsmanship.
You look at your watch and you realize it’s time to head to the starting line. You’ve done your warm-ups, stretched a bit, downed a cup of water (or the drink du jour) and fired off a couple good striders. Now, you’re ready. You toe the line, looking into that first turn with 9 or 10 other competitors in the same “on-your-mark” position. And then…nothing happens. Nothing.
According to the largest survey of sports officials ever conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) in October 2017, the current average age of all officials is 53.3 years of age. The average age of an official just starting out in the 1970s was 19. Today, it’s 47. And this trend is affecting everything from youth sports to college to master’s events. In 10 years, who’s gonna yell GO?
Now, these survey results aren’t just from the running world, but rather all sports, including Little League baseball, high school soccer and, yes, master’s track and field. Sports such as field hockey, swimming and lacrosse are being decimated by the lack of younger officials willing to train and make $30 a game.
Money is not the main reason for the lack of new blood in the ranks of officiating. According to the NASO survey, that distinction belongs to sportsmanship, or more appropriately, poor sportsmanship and the negative view of officials. The conduct of parents and athletes alike are at times “mob mentality” on a call or decision that is viewed as unfavorable.
The level of training for officials also varies by sport. Track & field and cross country certification programs help, from various organizations such as Road Runners Clubs of America and the USA Track & Field Association. But here again, far more are opting for coach’s certification over officiating. And no wonder. Girls’ team sport participation has increased to 52.8% while boys’ sports participation held steady at 61.1%.
There are lots of opportunities to coach at all levels of sport. Delaware has seen a huge boom in AAU track & field teams and participation, along with programs like Girls on the Run and Healthy Kids. But again, who is yelling GO?
I hate to say it, but having witnessed it first hand on more than one occasion, the growth of participation has brought with it the growth of boorish behavior. Ask yourself, would you officiate a U10 soccer game with a parent screaming in your ear about off-sides? How about a junior track meet if a jumper is just over the toe board but the official misses it? And parents don’t have the monopoly on poor conduct. Many new coaches and new athletes are part of the perception problem.
So to get back to our track meet with no starter, the graying of today’s officials means that there will be, or in reality IS, a decline of opportunities to compete for athletes of all ages and in all sports. Track & field, tennis and swimming are listed as the most vulnerable. Oddly, these sports also have one of the better sportsmanship perceptions.
Already, this aging of officials has had a negative impact on junior high and high school sports, with contests being canceled. NCAA sports and the professional ranks haven’t been affected…yet. But from where do today’s professional officials rise? Why, the lower ranks like Little League, club and high school sports of course.
One last thought… I love the officials I’ve had the chance to work with over the years. Even when they get it wrong, and they do sometimes get it wrong, the long-term impact is still one of positive experience for athletes, coaches and parents. So I hope someone is there to yell GO at every race. Maybe you?
I hope to see you on the roads, tracks and trails…
Former standout Lock Haven University runner Andy Shearer is a member of the Middletown Athletic Club, the Greater Philadelphia Track Club and USA Track and Field.