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A shortage of high school sports officials in Vermont makes scheduling games tougher than ever

Mark Stahl
A lack of sports officials in Vermont is impacting the fall football schedule.

As students in Vermont head back to classes and extracurricular activities, families are grappling with trying to coordinate the busy schedule of school sports.

The pandemic has made that effort even more complicated. And this year, there's a new wrinkle — a lack of officials available to referee various sports, with football taking an especially hard hit.

Sean Farrell is the scheduler for the Vermont Interscholastic Football League. He says the decrease in sports officials means a shift in the fall game schedule, and that's creating its own set of problems.

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Sean Farrell. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So let's start with the situation. I want to focus on football in particular, and the scheduling problems here. What does the lack of officials mean for the number of games that are scheduled this year, and when those games can be played? 

Sean Farrell: Well, traditionally we would be able to host 10 games a night or day between Friday and Saturday. And that was kind of our max in the past. And now with our decreased number of officials — we're sitting at around 45 officials for the entire state — we're limited. We're looking at mainly seven games either Friday or Saturday.

So therefore, we have to look to alternate days in order to provide the number of officials that we feel is safe for a varsity football game, which is five officials per game.

What is behind this lack of officials this year?

Well, I think there's a lot of contributing factors. We need to recruit more younger officials to get into the profession. And I think that's the challenge. A lot of our officials are getting older. It's hard. It's a big commitment.

And we need to find more officials to help us out, because we can't continue in the direction we're going.

A lot of our officials are getting older. It's hard. It's a big commitment. And we need to find more officials to help us out because we can't continue in the direction we're going.
Sean Farrell, Vermont Interscholastic Football League

And there's another problem I would anticipate, with games being played on Thursdays. And this is something that's been complained about even in the pro-game, in the NFL. And that's because if there are games played on Thursday nights, does that mean a shorter turnaround for some teams to play their next game, and then that could lead to perhaps more injuries for players?

Yeah, it's a concern. There's the turnarounds, a little quicker, a little longer for high school. Pros play on Sunday, and then they play again on Thursday. So that's real short.

We do have a situation this year where we are having a school play — one of them is playing on a Saturday, and then are turning around and playing on a Thursday. And we looked at other opportunities. The schools were unable to play on Sunday the following week, but then again, that shortens your Sunday to Friday.

So either way you look at it, you're gonna end up with a short week, which is a concern.

Yeah. Officials are paid, I imagine, paid probably not very much?

Officials receive $85 for a varsity game and $57 for a JV game.

Okay. And I hate to ask this next question, Sean. But is there are another problem in recruiting more referees, more officials having anything to do with fan or parent behavior?

I would say it has a lot to do with it. I host a parent meeting each season. And one of the things I talk about is the number one reason that coaches and officials get out of the business is because of the behavior of fans, parents, or other spectators. It can be challenging, and you’ve got to have some thick skin if you're going to spend an hour-and-a-half to two hours feeling like you're being yelled at the entire game.

Have you seen this problem get worse in recent years?

I would say that last year was by far the worst year with behavior across the state, across multiple sports. The Vermont Principals’ Association is taking a serious view of it. And you know, we're coming up with the new sportsmanship announcements that need to be read at all games.

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We’re trying to really impress upon people the importance of just being there to support their kids and enjoy the fun game that it's supposed to be.

Yeah, absolutely. Let's talk a little bit about retention. Once an official is trained and ready to get on the field, how long do they typically stay on?

Well, I would say the majority actually stay for quite a while. You're going to have a group that say, ‘Oh, yeah, I'm gonna try this.’ And then they go out and then they realize this isn't for me. And they usually can make that decision in a year or two. I think if you make it through that kind of grace period, they tend to stay for quite a while.

"I think the number one reason that coaches and officials get into the game is for the love of the sport, and the love of the kids. And if they want to come make a difference in kids' lives and give them an opportunity, here's a great way to do it."
Sean Farrell, Vermont Interscholastic Football League

You talked about the need to perhaps get some younger officials on the field. Is there any kind of strategy or plan to recruit younger referees?

Yeah, the [Vermont Principals' Association] has done official job fairs in the past. There's advertisements out of the organization. So the Vermont Football Officials Association put things out there. I think stories like this help. So I think the more we put it out to the public, hopefully more people decide to step up.

Well, what's gonna happen here? If you know the scheduling becomes untenable? I mean, are we talking about some sports maybe not being able to be played?

I don't know if they won't be played. I think that we'll just have to rethink how we do things. And, you know, maybe some sports, we have to reduce the number of games we play. You know, obviously, we want to focus on recruitment, rather than reducing the opportunities for the students.

And the short-term plan for now for football specifically seems to be this shift in when the games get played. Is that going to be the short-term solution?

That is my hope for this year. We have to get through it. We're going to have to — the Vermont Football Coaches Association, and the [Vermont Interscholastic Football League] will have to kind of sit together and think about, how do we want to move forward?

Sean, if you had to make sort of an elevator pitch to somebody who's listening to this, maybe thinking about getting out there and refereeing a high school football game, what would that pitch be?

Well, I think the number one reason that coaches and officials get into the game is for the love of the sport, and the love of the kids. And if they want to come make a difference in kids' lives and give them an opportunity, here's a great way to do it.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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