During a Nov. 3 home game against Vardaman, West Lowndes head football coach Anthony King gestured at the clock on the scoreboard, then looked up at the press box.
Clock errors throughout the Panthers’ regular-season finale had fans and coaches questioning what was going on. That wasn’t all: When West Lowndes went up 40-7, the scoreboard showed a 44-7 tally instead, triggering a running clock for the rest of the game via the 35-point lead threshold.
Even when the score was corrected, the clock continued to run for the rest of the game.
The reason? The Mississippi High School Activities Association official assigned to operate the clock never showed up.
It was a picture-perfect representation of the ongoing official/referee shortage in Mississippi.
Columbus-based referee Jeff Morrison has been refereeing for the greater part of four decades, but during his time in the Golden Triangle, he’s seen a “severe” decline in officials across the board.
“I started officiating up here around the 2007 season, and we’ve probably got less than half of the number of officials we had then across all sports,” Morrison said.
Morrison is one of several officials who work multiple sports, as he currently officiates baseball, basketball, football and softball games.
Football has seen some significant changes in recent years, most notably the switch to playing games on both Thursday and Friday nights so officiating crews won’t be stretched too thin.
The West Lowndes-Vardaman game was slated for Thursday before the season began along with the rest of MHSAA Class 1A, 5A and 6A contests that week in order to accommodate Class 2A, 3A and 4A playoff games the following night.
Despite the change, the Panthers’ game still ended up short staffed.
“They’ve done everything they can to keep them from infringing on college game days on Saturday,” Morrison said. “If it continues to get worse, I can see that becoming an issue as well: playing (high school football) on Saturdays.”
Especially with football, the lack of officiating crews has brought first-time referees seeking to help into the fold.
But even those efforts haven’t done much, if anything, to help out the current issues plaguing Mississippi.
“This is my first year officiating,” Jason Chrest of Caledonia said. “Because of the shortage, I was like, ‘Somebody has to do it, and I know I can do it.’
“Right now in District 4, there were about 11 crews this season, so roughly 77-80 people,” he added. “As far as how many there used to be, from what I understand, around 2017, there were about 25 crews.”
More players, fewer refs
Football officiating crews once were groups of six until recent changes added an extra member.
With so many officials needed on the field at the same time, football has become one of the biggest examples of how bad the officiating shortage has become.
But it’s far from the only sport that has felt the effects.
Soccer, very much a growing sport in Mississippi and in the South, has seen increased player participation in recent years, but the corresponding amount of soccer referees hasn’t materialized.
Soccer official and assigner Emanuel “Many” Pintican has seen the effects of this current wave of refereeing dying down within the state.
Having anywhere from 10 to 15 referees on the docket at one time is standard, but with soccer crews consisting of two line judges and one main official on the pitch, 30 to 45 officials — or more — are required for a full slate.
There aren’t always enough officials to go around as dire situations with fewer referees have become prevalent, Pintican said.
“Pre-COVID, we were at 852, and at the end of 2022 registration, we were at 643. So we have had a 24.5 percent decrease in our referee registrations,” Pintican said. “This is pretty similar to national United States Soccer Federation (USSF) numbers.”
MHSAA Assistant Director Greg Freeman, who supervises officials for Mississippi’s high school sports governing body, said there were roughly 3,000 officials in the state in 2020.
The Midsouth Association for Independent Schools did not provide The Dispatch with officiating statistics upon request.
Roughly 500 to 600 new referees have joined the MHSAA over the past two years, and the organization is still doing what it can to continue to encourage more and more people into officiating.
Freeman said the MHSAA is “always recruiting” and is set to launch an online program that will allow potential officials to receive a six-to-eight-week training for the sports they want to officiate.
The program will go live in the coming months.
“Once they get that certificate in the end, that puts them way ahead of the game as far as getting involved in our association,” Freeman said.
These efforts toward refereeing have been welcome, but in many respects, they have only come about as a necessary action to prevent an even worse decline in officiating numbers.
The numbers MHSAA provided don’t fully account for officials who have left, a few hundred or so, which immediately takes that number down around the 3,300 range. They also don’t account for those who referee multiple sports.
Officials can be counted twice, three times or even more depending on how many sports they officiate in the span of a year.
Knowing that, it’s hard to get a full picture of just how many MHSAA referees are currently on the job.
‘The fan factor’
So why are officials leaving fields and courts across the state?
For one, the threat of retaliation has scared away officials young and old.
Routinely, new videos are surfacing on social media of players, parents, coaches and fans antagonizing officials — attacking them on playing fields or fighting them in parking lots.
“I definitely have seen an increase in the level of feedback that you get from the stands that’s directed on the field toward the officials,” said Adam Minichino, communications specialist at Mississippi University for Women. “For some reason, I don’t know why, but more people seem to, when they see something go against their team, feel more entitled to speak out and say something.”
Minichino — a former sports editor for The Dispatch — is a longtime baseball umpire, first in his home state of Connecticut and then in Mississippi.
The sort of ridicule he’s seen has been experienced firsthand by everyone, and it’s only getting worse.
In baseball, at least, Mississippi has put some rules in place to prevent coaches from getting too close to umpires when arguing calls, but even that can only do so much.
In soccer, Pintican said, younger officials have it particularly bad.
“The fan factor was something that affected a lot of the younger referees,” Pintican said. “The level of respect today from the young ones on the field to the referees, you can see from a younger age, there’s very little of that toward the adults.”
“You go to games and see referees being respected in a very blunt method and way.”
Other reasons for the shortage
There are other problems, too.
Long hours; high officiating dues and equipment costs; and insufficient pay are all reasons for Mississippi’s officiating shortage.
Officiating dues differ with each sport. According to the MHSAA’s officials handbook, the annual registration fee is $45 per sport, with more fees added on at a local level from there.
Those fees don’t even include equipment costs, which tend to run in the hundreds of dollars for a full outfit with the proper patchwork included.
“Typically, an official will have to pay around $90 per sport, per association in state and local association dues per season,” Morrison said. “The uniform cost for officials is steep for someone starting out (especially if they have to purchase everything new). Each association has their own unique shirt/jersey that can only be worn for their sanctioned games.”
Game pay fluctuates across the board, with football officials’ pay for MHSAA games ranging from $50 for one middle school game and $60 for one junior varsity game to $115 for a varsity game for working on the field.
Clock operators get $60 per game ($90 to run both the electronic clock and the play clock), but travel compensation isn’t included.
For MAIS football games, where it looks to be five-man crews, field officials get $115, assigning secretaries get $105, and clock operators get $65. Field officials get $95 when there are six-man crews.
Like contracted freelancers, the more you work, the more you get paid, but that comes at the added expense of being away from loved ones.
COVID-19 has been the most recent factor driving referees away, as many older officials didn’t continue once restrictions started to be lifted.
Earnest Williams, who has been umpiring in Mississippi for nearly three decades, has seen numbers drop nearly 30 percent in recent years for baseball and softball umpires — from about 125 to less than 90.
“The biggest drivers of officials getting away from the sport are guys getting older and younger people not getting in over the years,” Williams said. “With people retiring out of the profession, the numbers have finally caught up to where the shortage came about.”
‘The love of the sport’
The official shortage in Mississippi is a growing problem, but one thing is for certain: Those who continue to ref do it, more often than not, because of their passion for the sports they officiate.
“I grew up playing baseball and I watch it on TV, regardless of the level,” Minichino said. “The love of the sport keeps me coming back. The financial aspect of it is attractive when you get to a higher level, but it’s more an adrenaline rush than anything to work games at Mississippi State, at the junior college level, in games with the best teams in the state.”
That passion has kept longtime officials from leaving and has driven new ones to enter the fray.
But unless significant changes are made to mitigate the problem, it might be a while before Mississippi sees healthy numbers of officials again.
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