By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – You may not agree with all their calls, but there’s one thing that can’t be debated.
Officials are an essential part of athletics at all levels. Without them, you can’t play the game.
There are around 3,500 officials registered with the Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA) across all sports, a total that’s been declining over the past two years.
Since the pandemic started in spring 2020, the state has seen a 10-20% reduction in the number of certified high school officials, according to Jon Dolliver, an assistant director and supervisor of officials for the NSAA.
“It’s a concern,” said Dolliver, noting that the shortage can lead to rescheduled games, extensive travel for officiating crews and other issues.
The problem is even more prevalent for junior varsity and junior high games, which don’t require officials to be certified with the NSAA.
“I know there are a lot of athletic directors out there who are searching and combing through their small communities to find people to work those lower-level games,” Dolliver said.
There are a variety of reasons why officials decide to hang up their whistle – age, family and professional obligations and a lack of sportsmanship from fans among them. The state’s 1.8% unemployment rate doesn’t help either.
“There are a lot of businesses looking for people to come work for them,” Dolliver said. “Officiating is no different.”
That’s why it’s important to continuously look for ways to generate interest in the job, particularly among younger generations.
Damon Day, a lecturer in the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences, is doing just that.
‘A SERVICE WE CAN PROVIDE’
As a youth baseball and basketball coach and the father of two children, ages 12 and 13, Day recognizes the urgent need to recruit and train new sports officials.
“We’re at critical mass,” the former Loper baseball coach said. “With the number of officials available, everyone is under a tremendous amount of pressure right now. We have to do whatever we can to try to refill the ranks.”
UNK’s sports officiating classes are part of the solution. Day has been teaching them for four years, offering football and volleyball in the fall and baseball and softball in the spring.
He also added a basketball officiating class for the January intersession that concludes Friday. Created as part of the university’s COVID-19 mitigation plan, the optional three-week term gives students a chance to take a variety of online courses or participate in internships and other experiential learning opportunities during the extended winter break.
Day and department chair Nita Unruh saw this session as an opportunity to address a growing need in the community and across the state.
“This is a service we can provide,” Day said. “There are a lot of basketball tournaments coming up that are going to need officials.”
Eighteen students enrolled in Day’s basketball officiating class, which covers the rules and regulations, signals and other basics. The entry-level course is designed for people who want to get started in officiating, as well as anyone who wants to learn more about the game.
“When you come out of the officiating class, you are not an NSAA-certified official, but you are a certified official,” Day said, and there are plenty of opportunities to work youth tournaments and other non-varsity events.
To be certified by the NSAA, officials must pass a test, view a rules meeting and pay a registration fee.
Austin Luger, a UNK senior from Alliance, plans to take those steps after completing Day’s class.
A forward on the Loper men’s basketball team, Luger has been officiating youth basketball games for about three years. He wants to start working varsity contests after graduating in May with a bachelor’s degree in recreation, outdoor and event management and a minor in physical education.
“I think officiating provides many benefits,” Luger said. “Being an athlete, it all comes to an end sometime, and I think officiating kind of keeps the love of the game alive.”
Dolliver agrees. He can list several reasons why someone should consider officiating.
“Obviously, there’s a financial benefit. You can go out and earn some extra cash,” he said.
Plus, he added, it’s a great way to develop new friendships and remain active while supporting Nebraska athletic teams.
“A lot of the people who officiate are former athletes. For them, it helps give back to the game and helps them stay involved in the game,” Dolliver said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie among officials.”