A shortage of officials at the youth and prep levels has plagued the sports world in recent years, and high school wrestling has certainly not been immune to the issue.
Missouri schools throughout the state have seen the problem start to unfold in front of their eyes. And more and more people have begun to take notice every day.
“There’s no doubt about it. There’s a need for more varsity-level officials,” said Jerry Middleton, the Missouri State High School Activities Association Wrestling Rules Interpreter for Western Missouri and 40-plus-year veteran official himself. “It’s a numbers game right now, and we’re short numbers-wise.”
The biggest problem has been attracting new referees to the officials’ ring. According to numbers provided by the MSHSAA office, more than 5,000 individuals are currently registered and certified to officiate the various high school sports in Missouri, and the average age of those individuals surpasses 50 years old.
However, the numbers in wrestling appear to be trending in the right direction. Five years ago, in 2013, the average age of wrestling officials matched those from other sports in the state. In 2017, the average age of wrestling officials has dipped into the 40s due in large part to 34 certified refs under the age of 20 compared to only one – yes, only one – just five years previous.
“We see there is a need for entry-level officials in all sports in order to prepare for the upper age group close to retiring,” said Greg Stahl, Assistant Executive Director at MSHSAA. “… Yes, there is concern for the lack of individual interested in officiating.”
A statewide campaign led by Kenny Seifert in the MSHSAA office has focused on recruiting high school referees. Seifert has conducted speaking engagements at colleges and universities with students enrolled in sport-related courses and intramural programs, and he has been instrumental in promoting other initiatives attempting to attract new officials.
As mentioned, it appears to be working in wrestling where younger officials have made the commitment to dedicate themselves to the sport in recent years. In fact, four first-year high school officials had the opportunity to work at the 2018 MSHSAA Wrestling Championships this past season, one of them former state champion Eric Graham, a 2006 graduate of Park Hill High School.
“I’ll be honest, not everyone has what it takes to be an official,” admitted Middleton, who has officiated more than 30 Missouri state tournaments and has also served as the head official for the MSHSAA Wrestling Championships the past seven years. “We’re definitely trying to keep those young guys in the sport. Some of them get into coaching, and that’s great, but some guys like Eric have found another way to stay in the game. We definitely need more guys like him to get into officiating with the more and more veteran guys retiring every year. It’s natural attrition.”
If the number of wrestling officials fails to bounce back and continues to dwindle in the future, there could be serious ramifications to the sport. MSHSAA executives have already addressed the possibility that if supply of referees cannot meet the demand, then high school programs may have to consider alterations to their contest schedules.
Worse case scenario could potentially involve reductions in number of competitions, both duals and tournaments. But the good news is that schools do not need to worry about that quite yet, and there is still time to make a difference before reaching that breaking point.
“For a lot of guys, officiating can be a last-grasp of something that’s been a big part of your life,” said Middleton, who wrestled in high school at Smithville and in college at Northwest Missouri State University and has officiated ever since the 1970s, working his way all the way to the NAIA National Championships, as well as Big 10 and Big XII matches at the NCAA Division I level through the years. “The great thing about officiating is that you get out what you put into it. If you’re willing to dedicate yourself, officiating can make a big impact on your life, and you can make a difference for the kids.”
If you’re interested in officiating or know someone who might be, contact the MSHSAA office in Columbia at (573) 875-4880 or www.mshsaa.org