Referee shortage affecting more than just the schedule of high school sports

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Week one of the Texas High School Football season had eight varsity games featuring at least one Coastal Bend team on a Thursday. The rest of the season, people may see four sometimes five games on a Thursday night.

“No one really wants to play varsity football on a Thursday night, I get that. Because now you’re getting up and going to school on Friday and it disrupts everything,” local football referee Joel Hilliard said.

Hilliard is president-elect of the football division of Texas Association for Sports Officials (TASO). He also serves on the board of directors for the South Texas chapter of TASO.

Hilliard said it takes 12 officials per varsity football game. Referees work in crews and stick with that crew for the season.

He said the number of football refs is back to where it was before the pandemic, but it’s still not enough.

“We’re used to working one or two games a week. So, when you start working three games a week, there’s the physical toll on it, there’s a mental toll on it. Plus, you got to remember officials have other jobs that they do,” Hilliard said. “When we work a varsity game, we’re not just showing up at 6:30 (p.m.) and throwing on our uniform. We usually get to the game site a couple hours ahead of time. So, that means traveling also which means we’re taking a half day off work typically on those days and that does disrupt it.”

The impact is felt across all sports. If it’s a problem for varsity teams, it trickles down to junior varsity and freshmen teams as well.

The London Pirates football team in particular has scheduled three of their first four games on Thursday nights. Head Coach Robbie Moreno said there’s a positive side and negative side.

“We have Friday off, so we can scout and kind of get a three day weekend for the boys in terms of practices in games. Get an early start to the opponent,” he said. “The bad is we’re finding out this week, you just got Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to practice. And, Wednesday is really a walk-through. So, short week to prep for a quality opponent.”

He also sees how it can affect others off the field.

“From an admin point…they’re not really fans of it because it involves a late night for everybody. Band, cheer, community, coaches, players. Coaches are teachers so we’re kind of dragging the next day,” Moreno said.

To fix the problem, TASO has started several campaigns to recruit new officials.

One of those is going in to high schools and talking to the students that want to stay involved with the game outside school.

“We now have lowered the age to 16 where those students can work, like on the chains and work sub-varsity. Not for their schools obviously,” Hilliard said.

Another program is the Battlefield to Ball Fields. It encourages veterans to become referees with scholarships available that will cover entry fees and uniforms.

Hilliard said they are also actively recruiting more women to become officials.

The increase in abuse of officials has also been a deterrent for people to join.

A new state law, House Bill 2484, looks to change that. Abuse of a sports official is now a higher misdemeanor than before and can get someone suspended from University Interscholastic League events for up to five years.

If interested in becoming an official, click here to learn more.

London has their last Thursday game on Sept. 14. That matchup with H.M. King is KRIS 6 News Game of the Week. All the highlights can be seen on the KRIS 6 Sports webpage.

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