Calling All Stripes: VPA Deals with Shortage of Officials

  • In the lobby of Patrick Gymnasium at the University of Vermont in Burlington on April 1, 2017, the Vermont Principals Association hosts a recruitment fair for those interested in officiating high school sports. Over the past decade, there's been a shortage of officials for various sports. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Geoff Hansen

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    A display for the Vermont Wrestling Officials' Association is part of the recruitment fair hosted by the Vermont Principals Association in Burlington, Vt., on April 1, 2017. Several officiating associations attended in hopes of finding those interested in the job. "Jayvee, freshman and middle levels, it’s become tougher and tougher to find officials," said Bob Johnson, associate executive director for the Vermont Principal’s Association. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Referees, coaches, and soccer players from Leland and Gray and Windsor applaud Arthur Palmer, of Claremont, N.H., after he gave a short speech about sportsmanship before the game in Windsor, Vt., on October 5, 2016. Palmer, who was a coach and referee for most of his life, still attends many local games. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/1/2017 11:58:11 PM
Modified: 4/1/2017 11:58:22 PM

Burlington James Helak walked through the double doors of the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gymnasium looking for a way to help.

Coaching winter wrestling and junior varsity football at Otter Valley High leaves the high school math teacher with some time to kill during the spring sports season. Bob Johnson, associate executive director for the Vermont Principals Association, greeted Helak at the door.

“What sport?” Johnson asked.

Helak never played lacrosse; he’s seen only a few games in person. But desperate times call for desperate measures as the referees, umpires and officials in Vermont are in desperate need for bodies.

After all, signing up new recruits — particularly those who never played the sport in question — is a tough sell.

On Saturday, the VPA hosted its first Officials Recruiting Fair at Patrick Gym, the organization’s clearest acknowledgement yet of a decades-long problem that has left officials associations in Vermont, New Hampshire and across the country strained to staff high school, middle school and youth athletic games and tournaments.

Vermont associations representing officials from soccer, football, boys and girls lacrosse, basketball, field hockey, baseball, softball, wrestling, track and field, hockey and cheerleading were represented on Saturday, all searching for new, young recruits to join its progressively smaller, older ranks.

“We’ve never had an influx of young people,” said Frank Martel, an assigner and official since 1971 for the Vermont Soccer Officials Association and an official for girls lacrosse since 2009. “We’ve had teenagers who have gotten into soccer in the summer and have gotten into youth lacrosse, but they haven’t followed through when they get out of high school for some reason. They haven’t continued with officiating. In a lot of cases, it’s because they’ve had bad experiences with parents hollering at them and coaches hollering at them and sometimes the players. They’re not used to that.”

Some sports in Vermont have succeeded more than others. Football, hockey, soccer and basketball are flush with numbers; field hockey and girls lacrosse have struggled to find interest, even from former athletes. But all have seen their rosters get older and less mobile, decreasing their ability to cover ground. Johnson said UVM was chosen as a host by design to help lure students and student-athletes.

“The problem varies by sport,” Johnson said last week. “I can tell you that certain programs, like field hockey and girls lacrosse, they are incredibly short. They sometimes have to schedule games on a cycle statewide.

“We’re going to be able to cover varsity games,” he added. “The problem then comes in trying to train new people. Jayvee, freshman and middle levels, it’s become tougher and tougher to find officials. … This has been a red flag for a number of years, not just in Vermont. In a month, the National Federation of State High School Associations is kicking off a new recruiting effort for officials. It’s not just us.”

Generally, former athletes are often drawn to either officiating or coaching — never both — in the sport that they grew up with, each presenting their own unique challenges but are relatively easy ways to stay involved. But attracting new referees, as many acknowledged on Saturday, is easier said than done. Some of it is self-inflicted, as spring and autumn games that start at 4 p.m. are difficult for referees with full-time jobs to attend, shrinking the available pool. Officiating also has become a tough sell for many, as the relationship between coaches, parents, fans and referees has continued to deteriorate.

The age of viral social media interaction and, in particular, instant replay, certainly hasn’t helped the officiating cause.

“I think one of the things we have now that we didn’t have before is the media stuff,” said Shaun McCuin, president of the Vermont Wrestling Officials Association. “Everybody can look stuff up on YouTube. Everybody can look up calls on YouTube, they can look up situations on YouTube, so they become a self-proclaimed expert on something. It doesn’t make you know the rules 100 percent. … You can dissect it now.”

“I think officiating all sports is a hard sell until you approach them as athletes,” said Lynn Vera, a veteran field hockey official of 40 years. “It’s a way to stay active. It’s a pretty elite way to understand the game. If you are intellectually excited about the game as well as physically, it’s a perfect match. It’s an obvious next step for the best players. But they don’t know it, because they just think about coaching.”

The problem has grown only worse in recent years. Girls lacrosse currently has about 15 officials for this upcoming spring, according to Martel; field hockey has about 25 varsity officials. Ice hockey has about 60 total officials in Vermont, 15 of which are exclusive to college hockey. Boys lacrosse had 35 referees at its annual meeting last month.

“The hardest thing is you really have to look ahead,” said Kasey Hulvey, a former field hockey athlete at CVU and McGill University who now works as a co-assigner for northern Vermont. “We have our schedule already for the fall, but we don’t know our availability until August most of the time. So trying to get in touch with ADs and moving games around, that becomes hard just because they have to get school buses, make sure kids get out of class, that sort of thing.”

Low numbers means more work for those with the experience and credentials to officiate. Referees in Vermont make $75 per varsity game and $50 for a junior varsity game, plus mileage reimbursement at the end of the season.

But an increased workload can take its toll. Rick Streeter, a hockey assigner and official in South Burlington, Vt., said he worked 42 high school varsity games this season, more than double the average 17 games that a typical official does, and said he worked about 150 games including youth hockey games and tournaments.

“I was getting mentally burnt out (by the end of the season),” Streeter said.

Added Hulvey, who said she does close to 70 field hockey games a season: “You get paid, but I almost feel like it’s more of a volunteer thing, especially when I’m doing as many games as I am. I get that I make a lot of money doing it, but I definitely wouldn’t be doing as many games if I didn’t have to.”

Hulvey was asked why she keeps officiating every year, despite the heavy workload.

“Because if I didn’t, we wouldn’t have games,” she responded. “I feel for them.”

Hartford High athletic director Jeff Moreno has followed the referee shortage with concern, particularly for middle school and youth sports. Assignments for varsity contests fall on state assigners to make sure to every game is covered; junior varsity, middle school and youth assignments are the responsibility of individual schools’ athletic directors. For sports with fewer bodies, officials are often asked to work both a junior varsity and varsity contest on the same day.

“I’m glad they’re doing this,” Moreno said last week of the VPA’s recruiting fair. “We’ve been talking about this for years, that this problem was coming. … Everyone tells me this is moving past the horizon phase. Some sports are imminent. Basketball is robust, but not bringing in younger people. They’re not keeping that steady flow of folks coming in. The older guys just age out of the system. Same thing is happening to baseball, softball and soccer. Football, as well.

“Without question, the hardest part of the job as an athletic director is always getting officials for those sub-varsity levels,” he added. “There’s definitely a shortage there. Some have moved up to the varsity level, some are not as serious about it or not as reliable as you need. Some will call you up the day after, asking if you still need them. If you don’t have enough lead time, you have to cancel the game.”

Martel said there were two occasions last season when varsity girls lacrosse games in Vermont were cancelled because of conflicts in officials’ assignments. Johnson said that in some sports, high school athletic departments are told that regular season schedules are set in stone to help guarantee that each game will have officials.

“I think culturally, kids don’t know umpires the way they know their coaches,” Vera said. “You want to be what you know. So an official arrives at a game, does the game, then leaves. I don’t think athletes see themselves doing that. On the other hand, they see their coach every day. You have a relationship with your coach. I don’t know, if in any sport, umpires don’t have that emotional connection with the players. … I think we need to depend on the coaches and the athletic directors in high schools and colleges to talk to their graduating athletes about umpiring, about becoming a ref.”

Johnson said Vermont is not yet at a breaking point; athletic events for this spring, and the immediate future, are not in dire jeopardy. But Saturday’s recruiting fair was, if anything, the first in what will be a long-term battle with the preconceived notions of a generation seemingly uninterested in officiating. Field hockey and football officials walked away with several sign-ups interested in joining their ranks. Helak left Patrick Gym with a boys lacrosse form and an added intention to read up on the sport’s rule book.

“Sports are all basically the same,” Helak said with a laugh. “There’s the technical side of it that I’ll have to pick up on. But between the book, there’s also film you can watch. I’ll be studying up.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at or 603-727-3306.

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