Houston high school sports facing referee shortage, scheduling issues – Houston Chronicle

Steve Buckelew has seen a lot since taking over as Pearland boys basketball coach in 1995.

He’s collected more than 800 victories in his nearly three decades at the helm and is a respected figure among his peers, locally and statewide.

Buckelew is often tasked with solving problems, whether coaching his guys to break an opponent’s full-court press or just dealing with the logistical and disciplinary issues that arise while running a program filled with teenagers.

But there is one massive problem — impacting coaches across Greater Houston and beyond — that Buckelew cannot solve by himself: a shortage of game officials. 

“You wouldn’t think a city the size of Houston would have an official shortage, but it’s there,” Buckelew said. “We have to think of ways outside the box to make it better for officials.”

Nationwide issue 

The official shortage seen in the Houston area is part of a nationwide issue, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. So much so, in fact, that the NFHS — which oversees state associations like the University Interscholastic League in Texas — has launched a  campaign called “Bench Bad Behavior,” aimed at providing a remedy for abuse against officials during games.

The NFHS has dedicated resources to its member state associations to improve the behavior of coaches, parents, players and other fans.

NFHS chief executive officer Karissa Niehoff said pre- and post-COVID-19 numbers reveal that around 50,000 high school sports officials nationwide have left the profession.

“Despite our efforts for five years now to do a recruitment campaign, we still realize that loss,” Niehoff said during a Zoom session with national media last week. “We have some numbers that are coming back slowly, but we really want to not only call attention to the loss itself and the crisis itself but the reasons — more importantly, why? What we’ve found is the reasons officials do not stay in the profession really center around behavior.”

When the National Association of Sports Officials conducted its most recent nationwide survey during the summer of 2017 — drawing more than 17,000 participants — 57 percent said sportsmanship toward officials was getting worse. When it was asked who caused the most problems with sportsmanship, parents (39 percent), coaches (29 percent) and fans (18 percent) were identified as the top culprits. When it was asked who was most responsible for improving that sportsmanship, coaches (54 percent) and parents (23 parents) were again the top two answers.

NASO president Barry Mano also stressed the importance of school administrators correcting bad behavior in the stands. He said schools should be doing more to make officials feel protected and appreciated.

“Referees are in charge of the game; we’re not in charge of the environment,” Mano said. “So when a crew of sports officials comes to a site, they need to be better taken care of. They need to be recognized; they need to be secure. Do some things that make them feel welcome, make them feel respected. It’s not about money. We could solve the problem we’re taking about today if we started paying $500 a game for high school. We’re not going to do that. The shortage is not going to go away, so we need to do these other things.”

Troubles in Texas

Over the summer of 2022, the Texas Association of Sports Officials took a hard stance and adopted a new policy aimed at stopping the abuse of officials. The two-section document is short and to the point. The goal is to “collaborate with schools where excessive verbal and/or physical abuse has occurred to provide a safe and more positive climate for all participants.”

The first section of the policy focuses on the abuse and warns that schools will be reprimanded if the TASO presidents council deems there is a culture of failing to control players, coaches or spectators. If those accusations are not met with sufficient action and results, the consequences will be severely punitive. It states, “For schools that fail to address their negative culture of abuse, a notification will be sent indicating that, effective on a certain date, there will be no TASO officials, in any sport, assigned to home games for that school until the issues are satisfactorily addressed.”

Other states also are taking action to battle the issue. The California Interscholastic Association, for example, implemented a bylaw that bans fans who assault officials from attending any future events.

Mano said attacks on officials have become a way-too-common occurrence in recent years.

“Today, we are getting reports in our office every single week of physical assaults against sports officials,” Mano said. “I believe it is important that administrators come to the realization that they are going to have to put some lines in the sand, saying that certain types of behavior are not going to be tolerated.”

The issue of physical violence against officials came to light in Texas during the 2020 football season when Emmanuel Durón, a football player from Edinburg High School in South Texas, attacked a referee, Fred Gracia, after being ejected. He was later arrested and charged with assault causing bodily harm, and the UIL unanimously voted to suspend him for the remainder of his senior year. His actions were a clear violation of the UIL Constitution and Contest Rules, which set the foundation for the organization’s judicial process. All potential violations are investigated by UIL officials, who can then send a case to the state executive committee for a public hearing and reprimand.

Ejections and improper interactions with officials are listed as violations for coaches.

The UIL also has a sportsmanship manual, which outlines things like expectations for behavior, crowd control planning, and a code of conduct for athletes and coaches.

Following those guidelines is paramount to fixing some of the problems in regard to officials.

“The officials get tired of it, and they get abused,” Buckelew said. “I understand why there’s a shortage. They can go do something else and not take the abuse from coaches and fans. … There is going to have to be more emphasis on sportsmanship where they don’t feel like they’re just getting hammered every time they go out there.”

Impact on teams, athletes

While the problems causing the official shortage are certainly the central focus for organizations like the NFHS, NASO and TASO, there is also a ripple effect.

The shortages are forcing teams to play irregular schedules.

Basketball districts around the Houston area, for example, are playing Wednesdays and Saturdays for portions of the season instead of the typical Tuesday and Friday slates.

Down south in District 23-6A, the Dawson boys have been one of the top teams in Greater Houston. Eagles coach Mark Barre said the shortage has been a burden not only on players and coaches but on active officials who are working more hours and days to fill the gaps.

“I don’t think people want to officiate,” Barre said. “I don’t see a lot of young people officiating. The officials I see, I know most of these guys. They’re older guys. They’re working a Tuesday/Wednesday/Friday/Saturday schedule because there are no officials. They’re older, and you’re adding more work to their schedules? That’s not right.”

Clear Creek boys basketball coach Wes Bryan said the TASO Houston chapter has about 600 officials covering a wide region from Dickinson up to Conroe. That kind of workload typically draws a need for around 800.

“The president of the Houston area chapter (Joe Harris) also told me that officials have injuries or they get sick or they have other family obligations, and they can’t officiate,” Bryan said. “In other states, it’s worse. We’re blessed to be in Texas. There are other places in Texas that don’t even have three-man crews. When we travel to Corpus Christi (for tournaments), we have two-man crews.”

Seven Lakes boys coach Shannon Heston has his team chasing a district championship in 19-6A. He said that after dealing with the Wednesday/Saturday schedule last season, he and his players have adapted to it.

“With the ref shortage, I think they’re doing a fantastic job with the guys they have,” Heston said. “Last year, we went to this (Wednesday/Saturday schedule), and I was hesitant, just being thrown off the routine. But I think once you’re able to figure out how you want to handle it as a school and as a program, we’ve made the best of it, and we don’t mind it anymore. … This being the second year that we’re with (the) Houston (chapter) and they’re doing this, I feel like we have a better feel for it. It’s something we don’t really think about a whole lot anymore.”

When it comes to soccer, the official shortage creates a whole different set of issues to tackle.

For one, switching games to Saturdays often infringes upon the players’ ability to compete for both their high school and club teams. It’s a logistical problem, with officials, school districts, coaches, players and parents all trying to coordinate and find the best solutions.

“Now you’re asking these kids, majority of our kids in our area, who play club, to choose between soccer that their families pay a lot of money for or soccer that is free at their school,” Grand Oaks girls coach Amy Simpson said. “High school soccer will lose that battle every single time.”

Grand Oaks and the rest of District 13-6A ultimately reached a compromise with the officials to play two straight weeks of their district schedule on off nights to avoid Saturday games later in the season when club tournaments start to pick up.

Despite that one resolution, problems will keep popping up in the future unless official numbers see a significant uptick.

“I think the North Houston area, like The Woodlands, Humble, Kingwood and even Cy-Fair, we’re pretty lucky,” Simpson said. “There’s a high population of former soccer players, soccer dads, that don’t mind getting involved in reffing. There are areas of Houston where it’s more difficult to get refs location-wise or because of how they’re treated when they come to the games.”

Finding solutions

Recruitment and retention are key components to battling the official shortage, both in Texas and across the country.

When faced with scheduling issues, Simpson started to take action. The Houston Soccer Officials Association does not appear to have a social media presence, so she decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I just started tweeting,” she said. “I got the link on how to become a ref from the HSOA website and started sending it to every college in our area. I sent it to friends. Three actually signed up. I was focused on getting as many refs as we needed to recover so we don’t have to do this (scheduling) plan.”

Another solution is trying to get younger people involved in the profession. For those who have already joined on, it’s about using the available resources to train, develop and retain them.

“As far as the guys doing it, even though there are some younger guys that are having to call games they’re not ready for, the Houston chapter has done a really good job of putting veterans with those young guys and mentoring them, training them and leading them the right way,” Heston said.

Carl Theiss served as a high school basketball official for 26 years and is currently the Bay Area representative on the state board for the Texas High School Basketball Officials Association. He has also spent time on the TASO state board and officiated junior college basketball in the area for more than 20 years.

Theiss said one of his primary goals as a member of the THSBOA education committee is to get younger people involved. It starts with providing an avenue to learn about officiating.

For more than a decade, Theiss taught a sports officiating class at Alvin Community College, Lee College and the San Jacinto College North Campus. Now he’s trying to implement that same curriculum at local high schools. Goose Creek ISD and Spring Branch ISD are already offering the course, with active officials serving as teachers.

“We’ve got to get more young people in it,” Theiss said. “That’s why athletic directors are excited about what I’m bringing to them. What I’m really trying to do is get the high schools, across the board, to use my curriculum. … TASO, THSBOA, the officiating associations, they then have to train them up. If you get them as young people who know the game, it’s not about the rules — you just need to teach them game management.”

According to Theiss, officials who are former high school athletes and get involved at a younger age are more likely to stick around long-term.

“We need to promote it in our schools to kids who like sports,” Clear Lake boys basketball coach Tommy Penders said. “It needs to be presented as a potential avenue to improve basketball. It’s not something I think of, and we have to remind ourselves that this is something we need to address. If you look at any PE gym, there are hundreds of kids playing basketball that aren’t affiliated with the basketball program that have the potential to be great officials.”

One of the primary reasons people are not getting involved with officiating at a high rate is because of the potential abuse.

Simpson said she witnessed a 2022 tournament game during which an official walked off the field because of the vitriol coming from the stands.

“People have become increasingly mean to referees, and they don’t want to put up with it anymore,” she said. “I don’t blame them. None of us get paid enough to deal with that kind of stuff from the stands. It’s unfortunate that anybody acts like that, because it’s just a game. … I never, in my 24 years, have ever seen a referee stop a game and turn around to a parent and say, ‘You know what? You’re right. Let me change my call.’ It’s never happened. I know it can be frustrating, but at the end of the day, it’s a game, and they have to make split-second decisions and see what they can see. It is what it is.”

Heston said Katy ISD, like most school districts, has its coaches talk with parents before the season about refraining from verbally abusing officials. They also read a sportsmanship statement over the PA system before each game.

Heston said coaches and administrators need to do a better job overall of setting expectations for the treatment of officials. But at the end of the day, it comes down to personal responsibility.

“In 25 years of doing this, I’ve never once been able to blame a loss on the ref,” Heston said. “I could’ve done a better job as a coach, or we could have done a better job as a team. People have to understand that there are other things that lead to a call a ref has to make in a one-point game. … We need to not just talk about having good sportsmanship but actually act upon it and exemplify it in the stands as well.”