Friday night football is a quintessential component of the local sports scene. Every fall, communities across the country start their weekends on the gridiron, cheering on their team while enjoying performances from the marching bands and cheer squads.
This fall in particular, many of those Friday Night Lights have come a day early. Through the first four weeks of this football season, Long Beach’s high schools have already played eight football games on Thursdays, raising eyebrows from several fans.
The primary reason for that change is what is being described as a “dire” situation in high school football–a lack of referees. This issue isn’t new, with CIF administrators and referee organizations warning of shrinking numbers for years. But in the first season following the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has never been worse, and the future outlook doesn’t look much better.
“We’re in dire straits,” said Jerry Trautman, President-Elect of the California Football Officials Association, who is a 22-year veteran as an official. “Our average age, it’s up there. It’s very difficult for us to recruit officials, and the pandemic hurt us, but we had guys on the way out in the beginning. So when we can’t get young kids to get involved, it’s a problem.”
Trautman, 64, has been busy this football season covering multiple games per week while leading different crews. He’s witnessed a rapid decline in the ranks over the years in the Long Beach area, and believes the problem has reached a tipping point where it’s nearly impossible to cover every high school football game on a given Friday night.
“We were at 135 officials five years ago, and we’re shrinking,” Trautman explained. “We’re in the high 70’s now, and it’s the same in the Inland Empire is the same in Orange County. It is causing us to have games on Thursday nights; we’re making schools change.”
CIF Southern Section Commissioner Rob Wigod has been speaking about this issue for years, and continues to see it as an urgent issue for amateur athletics.
“We have been dealing with a shortage of officials, across all of our sports, for the last several years,” Wigod said. “The pandemic has certainly not helped this situation. This is everyone’s problem and it is up to everyone to help get it solved. Our member schools need to treat officials better, specifically in the areas of safety, security and crowd behavior. Our officials associations need to make sure that they train officials properly, give them appropriate assignments and do all they can to retain new officials after they come on board.”
According to Trautman, there’s a few issues at the heart of the ongoing shortages. The first is sportsmanship and how officials are treated at games. In recent years, he’s experienced incidents which required police escorts to and from the locker rooms after games. He says that for younger referees just starting out, they’re quickly discouraged from pursuing officiating due to the verbal abuse they receive from fans, coaches, and players.
“They’ve had enough. They’re tired of being yelled at. They’re tired of being chased after games,” he said. “It’s high school football, right? This is supposed to be fun.”
Michael Hudak spent a decade as a football referee in the Long Beach/Whittier area until the 2019 season, and he agreed that the job came with more than its fair share of negativity.
“It’s not for anyone with thin skin,” Hudak admitted. “The parents and the coaches, sometimes they’re brutal. I guess I just had really thick skin and never took it personally. The tough thing about refereeing is that no matter what you call, you’re going to piss off half the crowd. It’s a no-win situation.”
Ironically, that level of intense criticism only hurts the quality of the officiating. As more referees abandon the profession–or move to the less stressful world of recreational flag football leagues–you’re seeing high school football crews with less and less experience. Instead of referees going through months and years of training before taking the field the way it was 20 years ago, new officials can now get assigned to a varsity game within their first 3-4 weeks on the job.
The other issue is the financial strain on officials. According to Trautman, he is paid $89 per assignment, with many of his counterparts making a few dollars less. It’s not exactly a great return for a 3-4 hour football game, plus travel time and other expenses. Officials must also go through 18 hours of training, watch video regularly, keep up with an ever-changing rule book, and purchase their own uniforms at roughly $150 apiece.
Hudak points out that freshman and junior varsity games are more attractive to some officials, since it’s a similar pay rate with a shorter time commitment and less scrutiny. He said in recent years, some of those games have been moved to Wednesdays due to referee shortages.
Wigod offered some solutions at the local level, where schools can make an active effort to try to stem the tide.
“Our Athletic Directors can help by identifying recent high school graduates from their schools who might have an interest in officiating and get them connected to the appropriate officials associations,” said Wigod. “Our office is a resource for those who wish to get into officiating as we have an outreach program seeking people who wish to become officials and then we refer them to the officials associations in their areas to get them started. If we are not able to get this trend moving back in the other direction, I fear this problem will only continue to get worse in the time ahead and we all need to contribute toward making sure that does not happen.”
What would worse look like, exactly? Well, as Trautman sees it, even more high school football games could start moving further away from the “Friday Night Lights” experience.
“It’s a very dire situation for officials,” Trautman admitted. “And I don’t want to say this, but I will. If it doesn’t improve, and especially in the pay arena, then the older guys are going to leave. And then there’s going to be nobody.
“You’re going to have to play football on Wednesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, and on Saturdays. And that’s not just in Southern California, this is throughout the country.”