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Supply of officials poses challenge; abuse by fans, mandates cited as factors

by CASEY MCCARTHY
Staff Writer | September 3, 2021 1:00 AM

With fall high school sports ready to begin, referees and officials associations are doing what they can to meet the demand with limited numbers. In recent years, they have seen a steady decline in numbers.

Mike Mortimore is the assigning secretary for officials for the Columbia Basin Football Association and North Central Wrestling Association – both are part of the statewide Washington Officials Association (WOA). He said the number of officials was dropping even before the pandemic struck, as older officials retired and no new ones joined.

“The younger generation doesn’t want to get involved with it, I guess. We can’t figure it out,” Mortimore said.

As high school sports returned last spring, he said the local groups were hit hard when some officials who didn’t want to wear masks chose not to return.

Mortimore said the local officials organizations are still awaiting word from Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal on whether vaccinations would be mandated for officials. So far, the word they’ve gotten is that vaccinations will not be required for officials unless they are required to enter a school building, which will be a bigger issue when winter sports, such as basketball and wrestling, come around.

If a mandate does come down, Mortimore said he would probably lose about 90% of his officials. An association vote on the matter finished with the majority deciding if a vaccine mandate were handed down, they would walk.

Washington state COVID-19 guidelines for K-12 schools for the 2020-21 academic year currently require unvaccinated referees and officials to wear masks at all times, with fully vaccinated referees and officials only required to wear masks while action is stopped in indoor sporting events.

While the local organizations are overseen by the WOA, Mortimore said they don’t have a lot of say over the local associations which, for the most part, direct themselves. He said each sport has its own association assigning officials, with the WOA overseeing money collected, rule changes and some other overarching matters.

Mortimore said he has talked with some athletic directors at schools and told them the Columbia Basin Football Association would provide officials for the first seven weeks of the season, but is unsure what the last few weeks of the season will look like. If local officials do decide to walk, he said he assumes that would be the end of the season.

He said schools might typically look to other local organizations for officials, but other groups in Tri-Cities, Yakima, Wenatchee and Spokane are just as limited in numbers as they are here.

“We need to get more community members involved, otherwise we’re going to lose school sports,” Mortimore said. “Every sport is hurting. If we can get younger guys in, anybody, even just parents of high school kids coming in to join us. But no one wants to do it anymore.”

He said he’s not sure if it’s the pay or the abuse from fans that’s deterring people from joining. He said that abuse is only likely to rise, as officials who may not be qualified to cover varsity games are forced into the mix due to lack of numbers.

While he said he has football games covered for the opening Friday and Saturday, Mortimore said games in the future will most likely have to be moved to Thursdays or Saturdays, just because there won’t be enough officials to be everywhere.

He said he doesn’t see this being an issue in Moses Lake, where most of his officials are located, but could see it being a problem with surrounding communities, such as Odessa and Mattawa, where games will most likely need to be moved.

“We’re having to work a lot more. This spring, we had guys having to work almost every night,” Mortimore said. “More injuries are starting to happen, which then affects our numbers that much more. Instead of working five days a week, we’re working six days a week.”

He said he knows there’s frustration with bigger schools, where a typical five-official crew is sometimes limited to just four, and smaller schools are sometimes left with three-official crews officiating.

Mortimore said he hasn’t even talked with the North Central Wrestling Association about what officiating will look like this winter, but said he’s still awaiting word on vaccination mandates. For now, he said crews will be out on the field Friday night under the lights.