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Verbal abuse leading to critical sports official shortage

Football official Tim Griffin waves off a penalty flag.jpg
Football official Tim Griffin waves off a penalty flag.jpg
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There is a shortage of youth sports officials in the Big Country, in Texas and in the U.S. as a whole.

This isn't a new problem. The downward trend has been going on for years, but people that officiate games are warning that we are at a critical point.

During the fifth week of the high school football season, five area games were either moved from Friday to Thursday night or kicked-off earlier in the afternoon because there were not enough officials to go around.

It's hard to keep men and women to stick it out. According to the National Federation of High Schools, 80% of officials quit after two years. Their number one reason given is verbal abuse from fans and coaches.

"For years we've always said they've bought their ticket, they can say whatever they want. That's not true anymore because people have carried it a little too far," said Darrin Cox, who is in the middle of his 36th year officiating local football games.

"For coaches and parents to belittle us on the field, it takes away from it and after a while you get tired of doing it."

Cox recalled an incident after one high school game where fans threw bottles at him and his officiating crew as they left the field.

"It was over nothing, except they lost."

There is a group that is trying to change fan behavior.

Brenda Hilton started Officially Human, an organization that is trying to give parents a behind-the-scenes look at who the people that officiate youth sports are, and what will happen if we don't treat them with more respect.

"I'd like to look at how do we save the games?" said Hilton. "How do we not play on Thursday night, because Friday night is high school football around the country.

"That's what it should be. That's what we want to keep it at."

Officially Human has developed an online education series with short guided lessons for parents and fans to go through. Hilton, who lives in Chicago and works for the Big 10 Conference, is trying to spread her program around youth sports organizations in the Midwest.

"My whole goal is to create conversation around why do we have a shortage, how do we improve the attraction to the craft and keep them in it."

Cox said the Big Country chapter of Texas Association of Sports Officials could use 20-25 more football officials on the sidelines.

During that week that saw five games moved, the chapter had 91 slots for officials, with only 71 people to fill them.

TASO negotiated a pay raise with the UIL in the past year, and Cox said it is easier now than it used to be for an official to take an occasional Friday off. But those are really band-aids on a much larger wound.

"We're human. I think people don't realize how human we are. There's not a soul in our chapter, or even in the state of Texas that stands out to me that's not in it for the kids.

"We love kids. We love working with kids, or we wouldn't be out there."

Cox said they are already recruiting officials for next football season.

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