Colorado high schools navigate a dire referee shortage during football season
FRISCO — On Sept. 3, Randy Schouten of Eagle-Vail and the other sports officials in his car departed a Coal Ridge football game and took part in a Garfield County Sheriff’s Office-sanctioned high-speed dash to Rifle High School.
With a police escort, Schouten and the referees drove 112 mph down Interstate 70 before speeding past traffic that had been stopped for them in the town of Rifle.
The reason? Schouten and the group of football officials were racing to get to Rifle High School for the 7:30 p.m. start of their second varsity football game of the night.
“My poor Honda CRV,” Schouten said. “We had four big guys in the car, and it wasn’t happy by the time we got to Rifle.”
Police officers blocking traffic and escorting referees from one high school to the next is just one example of how dire the officiating situation has become in Colorado for middle and high school sports.
“It’s almost to the point of getting desperate,” said Schouten, a 50-year-old referee of numerous sports who helps run the Colorado Sports Officials association.
Just how bad is the officiating situation in the mountains? In the football area Schouten covers — which ranges from Kremmling to the north, South Park to the south, and Aspen and Rifle to the west — he said he’s tasked with ensuring 14 schools have referees for sporting events. For those 14 schools, Schouten estimated he needs 35 referees to cover all football games each Friday night. He currently has only 23.
As a result, mountain schools like Summit are having to alter traditional schedules to accommodate. Two weeks from now, that’ll mean the Tigers’ big varsity football showdown versus Glenwood Springs won’t take place under the Friday night lights at Tiger Stadium. Rather, it’s been moved to Saturday afternoon.
“Friday night football games are going to go away,” official Chuck Nissen of the Colorado West Custom Sports association said. “Everybody loves Friday night lights, but if there’s no official, there’s no game.”
Schouten and Nissen said the state — and country, for that matter — has been staring down an officiating shortage for several years now. But the predicament has become worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The two officials said the situation has boiled up to where it is now for several reasons:
- Younger officials are not joining the ranks to replace an aging work demographic. Nissen, 62, said 60% of the officials are 50 or older.
- Officials are experiencing more harassment from coaches, parents and even the players themselves. Last spring, the National Federation of State High School Associations conducted a survey that found 57% of departed referees said the reason they stopped officiating games was because of poor sportsmanship exhibited by parents and players.
Schouten, 50, and Nissen said poor sportsmanship, namely from parents and coaches, has a domino effect for young officials who are trying to improve at their newfound craft.
“I had two new basketball officials who both got into the business at a middle school in Eagle County, and they were learning and a coach really laid into them,” Schouten said. “So they both quit.”
And then there’s COVID-19. Schouten and Nissen were blunt that some officials quit the trade or sat out assignments last year because they did not want to wear mandated masks while refereeing games. They both said many officials, namely older referees, found the expectation of running up and down a court or field while wearing a mask to not be ideal considering their own physical fitness.
There are also referees who did not officiate, or haven’t returned to the craft, because they are worried about contracting COVID-19 during an assignment.
Summit High School Director of Athletics Travis Avery has had to work with officials to make the best of a bad situation, such as the reality that there is currently only one certified basketball official in Summit County. Avery said he can’t do things like schedule a swimming or diving meet at home unless he’s able to get one of the two officials in the mountain region to commit to a date. The athletic director also pointed to a recent junior varsity football game in Aspen where Summit and Aspen coaches had to officiate themselves.
Nissen’s sales pitch to anyone out there willing to don the white-and-black stripes?
“It’s for the kids to have the opportunity to participate and compete and have a good time,” he said.
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On Sept. 3, Randy Schouten of Eagle-Vail and the other sports officials in his car departed a Coal Ridge football game and took part in a Garfield County Sheriff’s Office-sanctioned high-speed dash to Rifle High School.