Umpire Mike Corneil keeps his eye on the play during the Hermon softball game against Old Town at Hermon in this May 17, 2016, file photo. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

There remains a shortage of game officials for virtually every interscholastic sport in Maine and around the country. Recruiting efforts continue from the state level to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The reasons are varied, but a 2017 survey of more than 17,000 members of the National Association of Sports Officials traced much of the problem to sportsmanship issues among fans, with 84.11 percent of the respondents saying sportsmanship is either getting worse or not improving.

Maine Principals’ Association Executive Director Dick Durost acknowledges that sportsmanship issues have been a significant deterrent to officials recruitment and retention in Maine.

The NFHS has reported that eight of 10 officials nationwide leave after their second year on the job, while the NASO report indicated that 75 percent of officials who quit did so primarily because of “adult behavior.”

While there are no related statistics specific to Maine, the state has experienced a similar trend with newer officials.

“I do think it has become worse,” Durost said. “First of all we’re seeing limited numbers of people express interest in officiating to begin with because of the reception and the fan behavior.”

Sources of the poor sportsmanship ratings also varied, with parents (39.54 percent), coaches (29.57), fans (18.25) and players (10.11) all cited by officials in the survey.

Such trends recently led to the NFHS in conjunction with its membership, including the Maine Principals’ Association, to release an op-ed column titled “Dear Mom and Dad: Cool it,” and make it available for publication around the country.

“This is a national issue, a national problem,” Durost said. “I don’t know of a state that isn’t struggling with getting a sufficient number of officials in almost every sport to be able to cover the needs.”

However, Durost is reluctant to put as much of the blame on parents in Maine as suggested by the NASO survey.

“I do believe that in terms of the fan behavior and parent behavior that while it’s an issue for us and associations everywhere, it’s worse in some places than it is in others,” he said, “so I wanted to direct it not only toward parents but to the rest of the fan base as well.

“There are so many parents out there that do it the right way that I didn’t want to paint everyone with the same broad brush.”

Another issue that affects retention is impatience by new officials who want to move up the ranks quickly. Maine commissioner of basketball Peter Webb said it typically requires five to six years of training and development for a new official to be ready to work varsity basketball contests.

Other factors are conflicts with jobs and family time. Related to those cases, Webb recalls a time when the vast majority of game officials in his sport also were educators, which meant they not only had a familiarity working with students on a daily basis, but they also were more likely to be free after school to officiate games in the late afternoon or evening.

“We could have been up to 70 or 75 percent teacher-officials at one point, and now it’s well below 50 percent,” he said.

Webb, who officiated his first game during the 1961-62 season and went on to serve as president of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials in 2002, also sees fan behavior and poor sportsmanship as an issue in the officiating shortage.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who say, ‘Who would want to do that with everybody yelling at them?’” he said.

The average age of a U.S. official in 2017 was 53.1 years, according to the NASO survey. The average age of a new official in 1972 was 18 and in 2016 it was 42.

With fewer younger officials involved, it’s becoming an aging population.

Walt Gorneau of Wiscasset has spent the past half-century officiating soccer, basketball and baseball in central and midcoast Maine, doing so essentially full time since retiring from a 35-year career in education in 2000.

“The problem is, there are no young guys coming in to take our place,” Gorneau told the Lincoln County News. “You will never be able to replace old-time officials who will go anywhere, anytime.

“It’s a tough situation we are in, throughout the state and throughout the country,” he added. “Every sport and every board needs new referees, especially females. Every board is trying to recruit new officials.”

But that recruitment effort, particularly for younger officials, inevitably runs headlong into the fan behavior issues cited in the NASO survey.

“The fan behavior piece ends up affecting the newcomers,” Durost said. “If you’ve got a veteran official of 25 or 30 years they’ve probably seen or heard most of it, and they’re more likely not to get done officiating because of it.”

Part of the learning process for new officials is working games at the middle school or subvarsity high school level, where the players and many coaches involved also are learning, but the crowds are much smaller so individual voices from the bleachers are heard much more easily as opposed to the din of the crowd at a varsity contest.

“I think sometimes we find that at those lower levels some of the fans and parents are frustrated, but those often are also the smallest crowds,” Durost said. “If you’ve got a thousand people in a gym, it’s hard to hear an individual voice. If you’ve got 27 parents, boyfriends and girlfriends there, every single voice stands out.

“People are affected by that. They go home and think, ‘Why do I want to submit myself to this. I love the game and I’m trying to get better, cut me a little slack and let me learn how to do my job.’”

Durost does not believe the rate of officials in Maine who leave after two years rises to the reported 80 percent rate cited nationally, “but there’s still a significant loss of people who decide after a couple of years not to stay with it.

“In looking at things from a broad point of view I think there are concerns in every sport,” he added.

Still, the games need to be played, and recruiting efforts will continue at the local level as well as at higher-profile events such as the football state championship games and the upcoming basketball tournament.

“We’re open to suggestions,” Durost said.

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...