High school hoops trying to deal with dwindling referee population


If you go to high school basketball games and think you are seeing the same officials over and over again, there’s a good reason for that.

You probably are.

The available pool of high school basketball officials has steadily been shrinking in the last few years, which certainly doesn’t make the job of Joe St. Andre, the area’s director of officials, any easier.

“We don’t have enough referees,” said St. Andre. “We just skate by.”

St. Andre has seen the problem coming for the last few years. “Basketball, I think, is the toughest sport to call,” he said. “It’s jam packed (in the gym) and everybody is right on top of you. We can’t get many young people to do it. They don’t want to put up with all the stuff that you have to deal with.”

Neil Johnston, who has officiated for 15 years before taking off this season, says there’s a simple reason for it. “It’s just not as fun anymore as it was 10 years ago,” he said.

The process of becoming a basketball referee isn’t easy. A prospective official must join the state association, then go into training. Then, they will call 10 junior varsity games, followed by taking a test in which they must score at least 70 percent. That is followed by a referee clinic.

A referee may be eligible to officiate a game, but that doesn’t mean they are ready.

“You just can’t walk out on that court and officiate,” St. Andre said. “What we try to do is get them started on JV games and we have someone go and watch how they call a game. They build their way up to it. But it’s not easy.”

The retention rate for high school basketball officials is shockingly low. “Some years, we may get 20 (new referees),” St. Andre said. “But they don’t stick. If you get three good ones out of 20, you’ve hit a home run.”

“The poor behavior of parents, spectators and players make it inviting to walk away,” Johnston said. “Is it really worth what I am getting paid to subject myself to abuse? Probably not. Spectators have become intolerant and intolerable. I called because I enjoyed the camaraderie and staying in touch with a game I love.”

The pay rate for a new official is $40 per game, which would be a nightly $80 for a girls/boys doubleheader, plus $15 for in-town travel.

But Johnston doesn’t think it’s the pay that drives referees away.

“I think it’s more of how the game is today,” he said. “Players constantly bringing attention to themselves after a dunk or blocked shot can be exhausting. Anytime a player drives the basket, contact occurs and there is no whistle, they turn and look at you in disbelief. Just play, young man…”

St. Andre’s referee availability problem got a lot worse once Covid hit two years ago. “Covid has taken a toll,” he said. “We may have 20-25 officials out because of it. So we may have to use officials that I may not think are ready, but hey, we have to throw them into the fire.”

Which means that the quality of the crew might suffer, especially since almost all of the games are now only on Tuesday and Friday. “The good ones like to work,” St. Andre said. “But some of these (referees) take it for granted that they are going to get games because they know we have to have them.”

St. Andre does say there has been a slight change in the coach-referee relationship. “They weren’t very commodating until Covid hit,” he said. “They’ve been a little kinder since then. You’ve still got a few who are going to raise hell no matter what, but they’ve been more understanding. But when district is getting started, that’s a different animal.”