Each offseason seems to pass quicker than the last for longtime high school football referee Donnie Strong, and with it the recovery time to prepare for another grueling gridiron campaign.
“I probably see myself doing this for another five more years, at most,” he said. “It’s like working a job … I still enjoy it. But I have to motivate myself a little more each year, and I don’t know when that is not going to be enough.”
A tenured referee of more than 30 years, Strong said he often peers at fellow officials and sees his reflection — a man at the back end of his career.
A shrinking pool of officials and referees has started to take its toll on local sports leagues. Many things can be blamed for this shortage — the retirement of tenured officials; low pay in developmental leagues (recreation, middle school and junior varsity); and lack of interest and/or retention.
Yet there tends to be a certain cause that seems to correlate regardless of sport.
“The parents are becoming increasingly problematic,” said Ed Oliver of the Grand Strand Soccer Referee Association. “I have witnessed some very poor behavior during the last few years.
“A parent walked up to a 16-year old official and told them, ‘You are the worst referee I have ever seen.’ Another time, a parent was berating a young official in a (Under-11 league) game from the sideline.
“She was only a few years older than the players and was working hard to learn the game and to become a better official. I was on another game and walked over to remind him the referee was learning and improving, just like the players. His tone changed for the rest of the game.”
In an effort to get a grip on behavior in the stands, the S.C. Youth Soccer Association implemented Silent September last year to bring awareness to the issue. For one month, spectators were banned from cheers or jeers while the ball was in play.
“This was mainly to remind parents to be supportive of players and not talk to the official,” Oliver said. “Officials are not to interact with parents. If there is a problem, they should talk to game management or the club to get a handle on the problem.”
You can begin work as a youth league soccer referee at 11, according to SCYSA rules and compliance director Burns Davison said, but most tend to start closer to 14 years old.
"Most of the matches, teenagers between 14 and 18 years old work with children aged 12 and under, where they can kind of learn the craft,” Davison said. “Then we typically have a good stable of experienced referees who work high school and college games.”
Unfortunately, on an annual basis, the area loses up to 20 percent of its soccer officials. With the sport bursting at the seams, it only further emphasizes the need.
“The need for qualified referees continues to grow in our area and across the country,” Oliver said. “Leagues, clubs and team members are expanding rapidly, and the number of officials needs to grow in proportion.
“We need to develop and grow younger officials. Our mentorship and training programs are vital to the future of the sport.”
Hoops facing similar issues
Under most circumstances, referees and officials who grade out best during the season earn games with the highest stakes.
Longtime basketball referee Mike Rosiek has been in more than his share through the years, and the feeling never tends to get old.
“I was telling my partners (prior to the Class 2A Lower State boys semifinal between Carvers Bay and Andrews) that this game is why we do what we do,” he said. “Only the best officials make it the deepest into the season, so to have a packed bandbox gym, with a region rivalry for the third time in a season is the best.”
Only three referees share the floor during basketball games. An increase in stakes also tends to magnify each call — or lack thereof — with games and the reaction of a certain fan base hanging in the balance.
“I see and work with officials, especially in basketball who I can tell are intimidated by pressure and the spotlight, and won’t make a call thinking that’s the way out,” he said. “Clamming up as an official is the worst thing you can do.”
According to Rosiek, most candidates claim to have what it takes to silence the noise around them and make the right call. In actuality, he finds only a few truly can.
Up to 750 referees serve each year in the Palmetto State. Of those, up to 20 percent will not be retained for next season.
This season, Rosiek is serving as vice president of the S.C. Basketball Officials Association. His primary job, however, is as director of officials in Georgetown, Horry and Williamsburg counties.
During his time in the latter role, he estimates between 58 to 72 referees have been at his disposal. This past basketball campaign, he had 68 — eight less than what he believes will be ideal for the 2018-19 season.
“If we remain at 68 officials, I’ll have to ask schools to move games to other nights. I only had to do that to one this year, and it was out in Kingstree,” he said.
Verbal abuse of basketball referees tends to be a primary deterrent for those interested in joining the ranks, Rosiek said. However, he adds the notion many hold that being an official is an easy way to pass the time also is a problem.
“Many (young referees) want ‘it’ now,” he said. “Many young people are not willing to work hard — and it is hard work — to compete, climb and work on your mechanics, study the rules and be fit. Many young officials think they’re ready for the bright lights of varsity immediately … and they’re not.”
According to research by the National Federation of State High School Associations, turnover of officials tends to be within the one- to three-year range.
“Someone comes in, they work a few games, they get yelled at by a middle school parent when they work their first game and they don’t come back,” said Dana M. Pappas, commissioner of officials and deputy director of the New Mexico Activities Association in an NFHS report. “We can’t get officials trained quickly enough. They haven’t even had time to develop a thick skin when the first negative situation occurs.”
In an effort to recruit new officials, Rosiek said he is spending more time at local parks and recreation centers. He also is using social media to gauge interest.
“For me, I really want 18- to 30-year-olds,” the veteran basketball official said. “It’s great to get experienced 55- to 65-year-old transfers from others states, but their shelf life is limited, realistically.
“Further, I want to be able to teach them correctly from the beginning and have a 30-year career officiating here in Myrtle Beach, instead of a five to 10 years at the tail end of a career.”
Lucky on multiple fronts
Many of the same culprits — low pay, time restraints and the griping of parents — are making life difficult for those staffing S.C. Dixie League baseball games.
On average, the youth baseball organization retains up to 60 percent of its umpires statewide from the previous year. However, there have been cases in recent years where it was forced to usher parents and fans into duty.
To this point, Conway Parks, Recreation and Tourism assistant recreation director David Williams said they've been lucky in that regard thus far.
"We have a Dixie League umpire who lives locally (and is one of our athletic supervisors) who works with and trains local umpires and Dixie umpires district-wide," he said. "With Coastal Carolina so close, we get a few who come over to umpire and coach for us."
The recreation department also keeps a running list of former baseball players who still live in the area, contacting them regularly about the potential of umpiring in Conway, Williams said.
A normal baseball season at the Conway recreation department sees up to three new umpires each year. During the regular season, it and other individual franchises are responsible for supplying its own umpires to handle games.
Still, the problem of verbal tirades from the stands persist. Within the past year, the Dixie League asked coaches to rein in parents should they become unruly, with there being potential consequences if unable to do so.
According to Williams, they have come up with another method to handle things.
“We do not have that problem,” he said. “We have Conway Parks, Recreation and Tourism staff at all games (and most practices) and they handle parents and fans.
“We address the individuals directly — fans, they can be quiet or they will be asked to leave. Luckily, we have not had any violence with parents or fans.”