As referee shortages spread, South Dakota seen as vulnerableFollowing the 2007 season, Layne Scheveck hung up his football cleats after one season with the Dakota Wesleyan football team, choosing instead to focus on what has turned into a stellar track and field career for the Tigers. But Scheveck, a Billings, Mont., native who is now in his senior year at DWU, didn’t stay away from football for long. Scheveck, along with his twin brother Lyndon — who stills plays football for DWU —became registered as high school football officials this year.
By: Matt Bunke, The Daily Republic
Following the 2007 season, Layne Scheveck hung up his football cleats after one season with the Dakota Wesleyan football team, choosing instead to focus on what has turned into a stellar track and field career for the Tigers.
But Scheveck, a Billings, Mont., native who is now in his senior year at DWU, didn’t stay away from football for long. Scheveck, along with his twin brother Lyndon — who stills plays football for DWU —became registered as high school football officials this year.
In order to become a registered official, Scheveck had to first pass an open-book written test, based largely on hypothetical situations, and then participate in an officials jamboree, which tests a new official’s practical application of the rules by having him officiate a youth program. Scheveck, who has officiated mostly middle school games this fall, hopes to someday move to the college ranks, something he’s thought about ever since his playing days.
“You see a lot of refs in their 40s and 50s still doing what they love,” Scheveck said. “You realize you can’t (play) for the rest of your life, so reffing is a way of still participating and being active, without actually being in the real game.”
Scheveck’s attitude is one the South Dakota High School Activities Association wishes was more popular among young people across the state. Scheveck, however, is among a dying breed of college students and young adults who still choose to enter the officiating ranks.
As numerous high school athletic associations across the country continue to be plagued by a suddenly decreasing pool of registered sports officials — especially in football — South Dakota seems fortunate to have avoided the problem so far.
But while South Dakota’s list of registered sports officials has remained relatively steady at just more than 1,000, there is growing concern that the number could begin to drop, much like it already has in other parts of the country. Football, which has 424 registered officials in South Dakota, could be particularly hard-hit as aging officials begin to give up their whistles.
“Officiating is becoming a gray-haired business,” said Buck Timmins, the coordinator of football and basketball officials for the SDHSAA. “There are a lot of officials with gray hair that have retired or are about to retire, and there just are not the young people to come take their spots right now.”
That could be problematic in a small state like South Dakota, where the 424 certified football officials are enough for now, but not by much. Football officials work in five-man crews, and if all of the state’s 147 football teams played on a Friday night, it would require 370 officials, meaning almost every one of the state’s registered officials would need to be available to work.
“It’s getting to the point,” Timmins said, “where schools are going to have to start playing on Thursday nights or Saturday afternoons to find officials. Is that happening now? No. But could that happen in the next two or three years? I think you could begin to see that in South Dakota.”
That practice has already been implemented in a number of states, most notably Florida, one of the country’s premier high school football states. An increasing number of schools, combined with a declining number of officials, initially began causing problems in Florida about 10 years ago.
So far, that hasn’t been the case in South Dakota, but Timmins did note that there aren’t many officials to spare on game nights, and if the state loses any more officials, problems could ensue. He said that when one official is sick or can’t make it to a game at the last moment, many crews are forced to go with only four officials instead of finding a replacement.
Mitchell resident Jim Johnston, who has been certified as a football and basketball official in South Dakota since 1974, knows just how tough it can be to find replacements for his crew.
“When one person has to be replaced on short notice, it’s extremely, extremely difficult to find somebody to help,” Johnston said.
Colin Kapitan, the supervisor of officials for the Eastern South Dakota Conference, said he hasn’t yet had trouble assigning officials to varsity games. However, he noted many athletic directors, like Mitchell’s Geoff Gross, have reported difficulty in finding officials for sub-varsity contests, a task made even more challenging because of the late afternoon start time of those games.
“We have enough officials, but not an abundance,” Gross said. “When I need to find a sub, I have a very short list I can go to.”
Overall, the number of officials in South Dakota is down slightly from last year, but the SDHSAA expects to close the gap before the end of the school year. The SDHSAA has 1,058 licensed sports officials, 127 of whom are new. At the end of the 2008-09 school year, there were 1,105 officials, but the activities association is still licensing officials in basketball, wrestling, gymnastics and track and field, so this year’s total still could end up resembling last year’s number.
At present, there are 427 registered officials in basketball, 245 in volleyball, 70 in wrestling, 85 in track and field, 36 in gymnastics, 29 in competitive cheer and 27 in competitive dance. While the activities association would like to see higher numbers in all of its sports, the most pressing concern is football, largely because the sport requires so many officials for each game, and because almost all of the state’s teams play at exactly the same time.
The problem in South Dakota seems to stem not from a declining number of officials, but from a relatively small pool to begin with. As some of the older officials begin to retire, the SDHSAA will need to find a new crop to replace them just to maintain its current levels.
“I think it’s a perpetual problem in a small state like South Dakota,” SDHSAA assistant executive director Jo Auch said. “I don’t know if it’s any harder to recruit officials. It’s just a matter of finding new ways to interest people.”
At the same time, however, Auch knows that officiating can be a tough sell. Most officials are paid in the range of $60 to $75 per game, depending on the sport, the school and the conference, and for some people, that might not sound like much money for what is often considered to be a thankless job.
“Sportsmanship seems to be deteriorating every year,” Timmins said. “You have to be a special person to go out and get yelled at for two or three hours, and most young people today aren’t used to being yelled at.”
Timmins also noted that it might be difficult for many young people with jobs and families to take up officiating as a new job. Still, Auch and the SDHSAA are being aggressive in their pursuit of young officials to help fill the ranks that might soon by thinned by retiring officials.
“We’re trying to get into the colleges to see if there is anybody out there that wants to earn some extra money doing something they enjoy,” Auch said, adding that she hopes a reduced fee of only $12 for first time registrations will help bring even more young officials into the fold.
Timmins said the activities association is looking in particular at students who currently officiate intramural games at the college level, with the assumption that those students would be the most suited to being trained and certified as a high school official.
Timmins added that the SDHSAA will likely feature booths at state tournaments to recruit potential referees, and that current officials can also help by spreading the word.
However, the biggest key in terms of drawing new, younger faces into officiating might begin at the high school level. Steve Rounds, a Pierre resident and a football official for the last 17 years, said today’s young athletes need to understand the importance of giving back to a sport that’s been good to them for so many years.
“We have to start in high schools and let kids understand, somebody is out here doing it for you,” Rounds said. “It’s a great opportunity to stay involved in sports. A lot of these kids aren’t going to go on to play college football, but if you love the sport, what a neat way to stay in the sport and earn a few extra bucks doing it.”