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Avalon Cabrillo Column Compton Football Jordan Lakewood Long Beach Poly Millikan St. Anthony Wilson

COLUMN: High School Officiating Crisis At Crossroads

My least favorite memories from this job that I love have come from unfriendly confrontations between parents, coaches and referees. You tend to reconsider priorities while watching an adult scream and chase another adult out of a gym because of the result of a high school sporting event.

Unfortunately, I see more of those unpleasant interactions every year, and the officiating situation for the CIF Southern Section is at a fork in the road for multiple reasons, including pay, availability and intense working environments.

Last week, I talked to more than a dozen current and former officials and assigners from the CIF-SS, and they all agreed there is a shortage of referees and umpires. The older officials, who would work multiple sports, are retiring while the younger officials, who more often work only one sport, are coming in unprepared.

Tom Davies, the CIF-SS officials liaison for Long Beach and Whittier, told me that for last five years he estimates that he’s lost 10 percent of his officials every year. He added that the quality of refereeing has also dropped.

“When the number of officials drops, the aptitude drops,” Davies said. “We’re putting first year officials on the field who just don’t have any experience because we don’t have enough for the varsity games.”

CIF-SS commissioner Rob Wigod said the problem is section wide, and that this issue has made him appreciate officials even more after coaching and being an athletic director at Wilson and Lakewood high schools.

“I have a lot of respect for officials because I don’t think I have the patience for it,” Wigod said. “Each level that you move forward you find that officials are a big part of what you do, and you’re depending on them and appreciating them for the job they do because we need to have them, and we need them to do a great job.”

That need was on display at Compton High on Friday night when Millikan visited for an important Moore League football showdown. I would never write an official’s name or call anyone out in particular because that’s not what high school sports are about, but I certainly paid extra close attention to the referees after a week of learning so much about the world of officiating.

It needs to be said that some of the officials for the Compton and Millikan football game lacked experience and confidence. I don’t know if that’s because they were in fact inexperienced, but it doesn’t matter when that’s the appearance. Optics are everything.

Multiple flags were waived off by the head referee, including on the victory formation to end the game, and the chain gang was routinely moved incorrectly. Both crowds loudly voiced their displeasure with the referees, and it reached a fevered pitch in the fourth quarter.

Millikan faced 4th and goal from the 10-yard line with less than two minutes to play in a one-score game. Rams quarterback Qeanu Campbell-Caldwell rolled to his right and hit receiver Malik Bradford in the back corner of the end zone. The senior bobbled the ball as he fell out of bounds, but our highlight video shows that he maintained possession with his foot inbounds as he fell to the ground.

The referees weren’t in the best position to make the tough call, and walked towards each other with their palms up in the air in confusion. Both teams surrounded the officials in the end zone to make their case, and the referee from the center of the field ran over to confirm it was a game-winning touchdown.

Video evidence proved they got the call right, but the hesitation in making the call created doubt. That doubt turned into rage as fans from the Compton stands voiced their displeasure. One parent stayed after the game to yell at anyone who would listen about how the game was stolen from Compton by the referees. Parents from both fan bases then went on YouTube that night to argue about the video highlight and the referees.

This has to stop or the situation will continue to deteriorate. Referees need to be more confident in their decisions, and fans need to be more forgiving. A little bit of understanding goes a long way. The other option is to keep doing what we’re doing, which will only make the problem worse.

Most of the officials I’ve spoken with have said that 50/50 calls in a game can turn into 60/40 calls if the team and players are well behaved. That makes sense because we’re all human beings who want to be treated with respect. This would be a perfect place for a “catch more flies with honey” clique.

I believe that if high school sports fans show officials more respect, they will be better at their jobs, and there will be more qualified applicants willing to fill the open positions. That being said, the referees need to have thicker skin as well.

Take former local football referee David Gutierrez for example. He was a member of the crew that officiated the Long Beach Poly and De La Salle national championship football game at Veterans Memorial Stadium in 2001. That game included a controversial call in the end zone involving current NFL pro Marcedes Lewis. Gutierrez said he enjoyed those intense moments.

“I want that big call,” Gutierrez said. “I want that full count, bases loaded, here comes the pitch call because I’ve trained hard and I know I’ll make that call to the best of my ability.”

“Sometimes you don’t get it right and you’ve got to live with that,” he added. “I still think about calls I didn’t get right. When fans boo, they don’t know, they’re looking with their heart. I get kind of juiced when I hear the crowd boo. It’s just part of the game.”

The question becomes whether Gutierrez is a dying breed, and if the young officials of the future will be treated with respect so they can fill that role and take that kind of approach. The answer will change high school sports forever.

JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.