NORTH CAROLINA -- The North Carolina High School Athletic Association is having a hard time recruiting referees for sporting events and if the problem continues to worsen, it could eventually lead to cancelled games or shorter seasons.
NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker says many older officials are retiring and the organization is struggling to keep young officials on the field due to verbal abuse from fans, coaches, players, and parents.
“Folks are saying 'I just don't like the atmosphere. I don't like the environment in terms of people calling us all kinds of names. We feel bullied. Not only during the game but even sometimes after the contest ends,’” said Tucker.
Tom Southerland has been a high school referee for 35 years.
He's experienced heckling from the crowd firsthand.
"The worst thing people are probably yelled at me has been making comments about my glasses and why I don't have a current prescription," he joked.
Southerland says he understands the reason why schools are having a difficult time recruiting new officials.
"I've heard them make comments as they were leaving," said Southerland. "But I'm focused on what I'm there to do. It's part of what you hear and you ignore it and keep on going."
The NCHSAA is being proactive in trying to retain quality officials through a sportsmanship initiative -- hoping to inspire better behavior from everyone involved.
The organization started a program called “Together We Make The Right Call.”
“Unless you have walked that walk, unless you have been an official, let's exercise restraint,” said Tucker. “There is something called good sportsmanship.”
Tucker says another part of the problem is money.
High school officials work long hours and do not get paid for the distance they travel or the hours they spend training.
“I remain frustrated and I remain concerned,” said Tucker. “I want us to always have the best people and the most qualified people out there on the field or on the court or wherever it is.”
Tucker says if the number of available officials continues to dwindle, the NCHSAA might have to cancel games or shorten seasons for some sports.
“If society does not start to respect what these people do, we could be forced to do some things that we may not want to do,” she said.
At the time of this report, the NCHSAA has not yet had to shorten seasons or cancel games due to the shortage of officials.
To alleviate financial pressure for recruits, the NCHSAA is waiving registration fees for new officials.