Changes in the area of competitive athletics are not a recent development. The history of sports and athletic competition in this country, at every level of play, is a chronology of change. Today’s scene bares little resemblance to the landscape of athletics that existed several decades ago and we can expect that we may not recognize the face of athletics decades from now.
Some dramatic changes could be on the horizon for competitive sports on the high school level due to increasing shortages in three areas: officials, coaches and athletes.
The decline in officials and referees is already impacting many high schools, especially at lower levels of play. Frank Vitt, one of the most respected officials in the state and a referee assigner for three different high school leagues, sees the problem up close.
“Finding officials for varsity games has not been a real problem yet, but getting them for lower level games is getting harder,” he said. “The average age of licensed officials in the state is now over 50 and there just aren’t enough young people getting into officiating to make up for the one’s who will be retiring in the next several years.”
This trend has captured the attention of Jerry Snodgrass, the new commissioner of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, who has labelled the shortage a “crisis.” He is drumming up support for programs that encourage more young people to take classes to become an official. There are several high schools around the state that now offer officiating classes as part of the their curriculum. The challenge will be to keep those young officials interested in staying officials once they become licensed. That will be no easy task.
Two local athletic directors used the word “disrespect” when describing why some young officials choose not to stay in the game.
“It’s a sign of the times,” said Todd Schulte, the athletic director and head football coach at Delphos St. Johns. “Fans are more critical than ever, and they can be very hard on young officials, especially in junior high games, where most young referees break in. A lot of the young officials decide they just don’t want to put up with it.”
Dave Evans, the athletic director at Elida High School agreed. “I’ve had veteran officials tell me that junior high games are the hardest to referee because the athletes aren’t as polished and the games can be sloppy,” he says. “And yet, people expect these young referees to be perfect and let them know it. The referees see it as a sign of disrespect, and they’re right.”
High schools are also seeing a shortage of those who are willing to take on the challenge of coaching. “There was a time when all the coaches in a school system were also teachers in the classroom but today probably 50 percent of coaches in schools are volunteers from the community,” said Schulte. “The OHSAA has a site that lists head coaching vacancies in all sports and it seems to get bigger every year,” he added.
Impatient school boards expecting immediate results from coaches struggling to build a program do not help the outlook.
The number of candidates making applications for head coaching positions appears to be shrinking as well. Evans supplied an example. “We have posted an opening for a head coach for our girls track team,” he said. “It’s been a successful program and we have some great girls returning. As of today, I have zero applicants.”
Many choose not to coach, or to remain in coaching, because of respect issues. We are in an age of negativity and there are plenty of forums available for people to express their criticisms. Coaches are often the targets.
Young coaches are increasingly on the receiving end of angry parents and fans who should know better. This is especially true in junior high programs that have been fertile grounds for the development of coaches. Stories of irate parents unfairly berating coaches for their child’s playing time or role on the team are growing and causing many coaches, at every level, to question whether their commitment to coaching is worth the effort.
Evans added, “When I was younger, I looked up to my coaches and dreamed about becoming one. I’m not sure many kids are dreaming about that nowadays.”
The shortage of athletes is a personal observation on my part that I can’t back up with statistics. But as I watch athletic events around the area and talk with coaches, it appears there are fewer athletes competing in many of our sports. The sidelines at the football games seem less crowded and in basketball there are pockets around the state where schools are only playing two quarters in JV games due to falling numbers in their program.
Coaches that I talked to cite a number of reasons for the reduction in numbers. More athletes, in today’s world, are choosing to concentrate on one sport and that impacts rosters in other sports. And for those athletes who do play more than one sport, it seems like everyone wants a piece of their time. The fact that out of season training in many sports now stretches into a twelve-month commitment has burned out some athletes and coaches as well.
But I also get the sense that fewer athletes, supported by their parents, are willing to play a minor or limited role on a team. Some athletes want “instant gratification” and are unwilling to wait their turn. If they are not in the playing rotation or receive limited playing time, they don’t see the value in being a part of a team. For an old coach like myself, that is distressing. The real rewards of athletic participation are not confined to those who get most of the playing time or the headlines.
I can’t predict what high school sports will look like in the future, but I can assure you it will still provide those who choose to compete with worthwhile lessons and values that will enhance their character. Friendship, teamwork, resiliency, pride and confidence will always be the genuine bounty gathered by every young man and woman who accepts the challenge of athletic competition.
Bob Seggerson is a retired boys basketball coach and guidance counselor at Lima Central Catholic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.