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Mitchell aims to combat referee shortage with partnership geared toward respecting officials

On Dec. 8, 2021, the Mitchell School District announced a partnership with Officially Human, an organization whose mission is “to restore respect to game officials and recognize them as authorities on the fields and courts.”

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Mitchell's Macon Larson (11) shoots a layup over Jason Fink (25), of Campbell County (Wyo.), during a Hoop City Classic game on Dec. 29, 2021, at the Corn Palace. Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic
Matt Gade

MITCHELL — South Dakota has a shortage of officials, but the Mitchell School District is taking action in hopes of reversing the trend, starting off the playing field.

On Dec. 8, Mitchell announced a partnership with Officially Human, an organization whose mission is “to restore respect to game officials and recognize them as authorities on the fields and courts.” In doing so, Mitchell became the first South Dakota Class AA school to engage in a public campaign centered around the official shortage, according to activities director Cory Aadland.

“I’m trying to raise awareness about where we’re at, get people to look at some things differently and realize that we need to change what we’re doing or we’re going to be in a really bad spot,” Aadland said. “We’re going to reach a point where we don’t have officials to work games, and we’re not too far off from that.”

Having formerly spent a decade as an official, Aadland has seen the issue from both sides and is well aware of its magnitude. However, it was after teaching an officiating course at Dakota Wesleyan University in the fall 2021 that Aadland fully recognized the need for change.

During the semester, Aadland invited Kelly Pfeifer, a Mitchell resident who has officiated Division I basketball for more than a decade, to be a guest speaker. After conversations between the two about the shortage of officials, Pfeifer helped Aadland get in contact with Brenda Hilton, the founder and CEO of Officially Human and the Big Ten Conference’s senior director of officiating.

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According to data collected by Officially Human, 70% of officials rank a love of sport as their primary motivation, but 55% rank verbal abuse from fans, coaches and parents as the top reason they get out of officiating.

“This is the first group that I’ve come across that is direct with identifying what the problem is and what we need to fix,” Aadland said. “People who get into officiating are doing it because they’re trying to give back. Just because you put stripes on doesn’t mean you’re invincible. They’re out there trying to do the best they can, and they’re an important part of what we need to have these contests.”

Given his officiating background, Aadland has emphasized the treatment of officials since becoming Mitchell’s activities director in 2016, but he’s taken it a step further in recent discussions with coaches, establishing officials in sub-varsity contests as “off limits.” Aadland identified such games as the places where young officials gain experience, learn and improve, underscoring their importance in recruiting and retaining new officials.

“They’re fighting for the kids, they’re competing, I get that,” Aadland said of coaches. “You don’t want to completely take away that enthusiasm, we just need to channel it differently.”

After partnering with Officially Human, Aadland sent the organization’s data on officiating to all his fellow Class AA activities directors. Since then, he’s seen several other schools introduce the information to their social media followings, and is hopeful it will continue to start conversations on the subject.

Aadland knows raising awareness is only part of the solution and many other actions will need to be taken to fully combat the shortage, which makes it difficult to accurately gauge the effectiveness of the partnership.

One such action to improve the officials’ experience discussed during the Nov. 29 South Dakota High School Activities Association football advisory committee meeting was to create a way for officials to evaluate the coaches and fan bases at each contest they officiate. Currently, there is only a system in place for coaches to evaluate officiating crews.

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“We expect officials to have this high level of standards, yet they don’t have a voice. They’re expected to sit there and take it and don’t really have a way to counter,” Aadland said. “I like the idea of giving them a chance to give us feedback.”

Though there is no solution guaranteed to solve any or all of the problems surrounding the official shortage, Aadland understands the process has to start somewhere and is content for Mitchell to lead the movement toward better treatment of officials.

“For 15 years, we’ve been talking about the official shortage that’s coming. Well, it’s here now and it’s a real problem,” Aadland said. “We can’t continue doing things the way we have been and expect it to be any different. We have to be better, and I hope this will at least start those conversations.”

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The Mitchell School District announced a partnership with Officially Human via social media with this graphic on Dec. 8.

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