BYRON CENTER, Mich. — It was a warm, sunny day in southern Kent County. After a seemingly unending stretch of chilly weather, it finally felt like baseball season. The Grand Rapids Christian and Byron Center Bulldogs each picked up a win in a baseball doubleheader. Fans were on their best behavior. There was little to complain about.
But that's not always the case. According to the Michigan High School Athletic Association, umpires along with referees and other youth sports officials list harassment from adult fans as the single biggest reason they decide to hang up their whistles for good. And then MHSAA has seen that a lot lately.
Since 2012, this is the number of officials the MHSAA has lost in each sport:
- Baseball: 946 (39%)
- Basketball: 1,299 (28%)
- Competitive Cheer: 34 (12%)
- Football: 526 (20%)
- Gymnastics: 8 (10%)
- Ice Hockey: 117 (19%)
- Boys Lacrosse: 59 (20%)
- Girls Lacrosse: 17 (12%)
- Soccer: 376 (29%)
- Softball: 870 (38%)
- Swimming: 37 (11%)
- Track: 90 (14%)
- Volleyball: 502 (28%)
- Wrestling: 111 (22%)
"Our officiating registrations tend to go inversely to what is happening with our economy. When we're having tough economic times, our numbers tend to go up. When things are good, our numbers tend to go down," said MHSAA Communications Director Geoff Kimmerly.
"When COVID happened, for a variety of reasons, a number of officials decided to take a year off or to maybe take a couple years off, or maybe just to be done completely."
Kimmerly says the MHSAA has rebounded somewhat from the officials they lost because of the pandemic. But they're still down all those officials who left because of the abuse they took from fans.
Julie Shields can relate. She's an event coordinator for the Meijer State Games of Michigan. But she's also a high school soccer referee.
"No one likes to be yelled at. We're really just humans volunteering our time," she said.
"We're doing it because we love it and we want to give back to the game and be involved."
The officials who are left on the field now have to take on larger workloads.
"When you look around the field, and you see where there should be three officials or umpires, and there's only two or in some cases, sometimes only one. It's just not good for the game," said Mike Guswiler who serves as the president of the West Michigan Sports Commission.
Organizations that put on sporting events have tried a number of recruiting techniques. It's something the MHSAA says they've gotten good at.
"We've made the decision really recently, to begin focusing some energies on what we call sports empty nesters," Kimmerly said.
"These are adults whose children have played our sports that are recently graduating or moving on, and now these parents are finding themselves still wanting to be connected with that scene."
The MHSAA also works with schools to allow high school students to become officials and work middle school competitions and be paired with area mentors.
The big challenge, they say, is retaining referees. And sports organizers are hoping parents can be a part of the change that leads to that retention.
"People expect a mistake free competition, when obviously, these are human beings out there, doing something for not a ton of pay, mostly because of the love of the game, and wanting to give back to their communities," Kimmerly said.
The MHSAA will start registering new officials in June. You can register on their website.
Special Olympics Michigan also needs soccer referees for its state games. You can volunteer with SOMI by visiting their website.
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