Working at the Kitsap Sun for the past 15 years, it’s not too often that I find myself saying “this is the first time I’ve seen anything like this” when describing an event that I cover.
Those are pretty much the words I used when attending Saturday’s “officials appreciation” barbecue at Bremerton High School. Knights football coach Paul Theriault and track and field coach Daniel McInnis took turns grilling hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken for the roughly 30 referees from various sports who showed up.
Theriault cracked a smile when someone joked that “Coach T” was angling to see fewer penalty flags at games next season. In reality, Theriault simply wanted to thank the men and women who make high school/youth sports in West Sound function properly. Without officials, games don’t happen.
“I thought, ‘We’ll do what we can on our end.’ This is a small thing, let’s give a little love and maybe we’ll recruit a couple guys.”
Yes, recruitment was the secondary aim of Saturday’s event as assignors from different associations attended with the hope of signing up some first-time officials. Unfortunately, no newbies showed up, which spoke to the difficulty of trying to groom referees to help support the ones who are already having to carry a heavy load.
Theriault pointed out to me National Federation of State High School Associations data that shows that 50,000 high school officials have called it quits since 2019. That’s not a surprising number — last summer, while writing about a referee shortage in Kitsap County, I discovered a National Association of Sports Officials poll that said referee registration nosedived by 30% in 2021.
“We are going to run out of refs,” Theriault said.
That may sound like hyperbole, but the need for officials on a local level continues to be significant.
Dave Paul, assigning secretary for the Peninsula Football Officials Association, began the 2021 high school football season with 26 referees (it was 41 in 2019). Because of the shortage, Paul asked local schools to adjust schedules, moving some games to Thursday or even Saturday. Paul said it will be the same scenario this fall because he won’t have enough officials to spread around on Friday nights.
Joe McKenna, assignor for the Peninsula Wrestling Officials Association, told me he only had nine officials in the rotation to cover events last winter, including three first-timers.
“Literally, during and after every wrestling match, I was trying to recruit,” McKenna said.
Due to low numbers, and the fact that McKenna is the only wrestling referee in his association who is retired, McKenna had to assign himself to work four events in Forks last season. That’s 270 miles roundtrip each time for McKenna, who lives in Bremerton.
“It’s a long day,” he said.
The question McKenna asks himself is one that other referees also wrestle with: if I don’t work this match or tournament, who will? It’s a tough question and I wonder how some of our sports would fare when veterans like Paul and McKenna finally decide to hang up their whistles. Who is going to be around to take their place?
Another conversation from Saturday that stands out is one I had with Dale Newhouse, a Port Orchard retiree who began officiating in the 1960s. He made his way up through the ranks and eventually found himself working games for the Pac-8 Conference (now the Pac 12). He also officiated in multiple professional leagues, including the United States Football League, the Arena League, XFL, and the NFL/NFL Europe.
Newhouse now works for the Washington Officials Association as an observer who critiques and offers feedback to officials working on the field. It’s a process that Newhouse enjoys, helping people who are following in his footsteps improve.
“I go to high school games and I’m rooting for the third team,” Newhouse said.
If I learned anything Saturday, it’s that we all need to start appreciating the third team better — and figuring out ways to help boost their numbers.
Jeff Graham covers high school sports for the Kitsap Sun. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.