Some things aren’t adding up for the Knoxville Football Officials Association ahead of this season.
For two nights, KFOA is tasked with providing officiating services for 18 high school games. The problem is, it only has 13 fixed crews.
“Just basic math says that don’t fit,” said Harold Denton, a KFOA supervisor. “It’s not just a Tennessee thing, it’s a national thing.”
What Denton is referring to is a shortage of football officials. It’s not a problem isolated to Knoxville or Tennessee or even to football. Lack of retention and youth in officiating is putting schools across the country in a bind.
Blount County football, on the other hand, is a bit of an outlier. Steve Hodson, assigning officer with the Blount County Football Officials Association, said the county’s top-notch programs are partly to credit for that contrast to a national trend.
“The quality of football we work in Blount County is the top of the state,” Hodson said. “There’s no question.”
Blount County’s officiating association has 45 referees that service six programs — Maryville, Alcoa, William Blount, Heritage, Greenback and Loudon. Three of those teams — Maryville, Alcoa and Greenback — won state championships two years ago and all three were back in the state semifinals last season with Alcoa bringing home another title.
Tennessee has 13 officiating regions. Hodson said BCFOA regularly lends its services to others such as North Central Tennessee, which is often forced to move games to Thursday nights because of the lack of officials. Blount County sent crews as far away as Jamestown, Smithville and Cookeville last season.
Knoxville’s association has more than 100 officials but a far larger region to cover with 30 schools. Denton has requested BCFOA crews to assist in coverage those two weeks when KFOA will be understaffed.
As for the size of officiating crews, seven is the number preferred by the state. However, more rural regions are sometimes forced to operate with less.
“It’s not as bad in East Tennessee as it is in West Tennessee,” Denton said. “Out there, they’re happy if they can just get five guys together to officiate a ball game.”
Denton attributes the problem to an aging population of officials and an increasingly tumultuous environment created by spectators.
The average age of officials is around 53 years old according to a survey of 17,487 officials conducted by the National Association of Sports Officials in 2017.
In that same survey, more than 57% of respondents felt sportsmanship was getting worse, and almost 40% attributed the problem mostly to parents over coaches, fans and players.
“Officials have the tendency to get yelled at,” Denton said. “Some are sort of thin-skinned. Some of them take it personally and others have cotton balls in their ears, and we don’t pay any attention. … There’s so much scrutiny that goes on at every level by fans.”
It’s not the kind of atmosphere that’s likely to attract or retain younger generations, and Denton said that trend is growing increasingly evident at state officials’ meetings. He expects it to be pointed out at the next one, which is slated for Wednesday night at Hardin Valley.
“One of the questions is going to be asked is this, ’If you’re 55 years of age or older, stand up,’” Denton said. “You’re going to quickly see the majority of officials are older, not younger.”
Hodson said most of the Blount County officials range in age from 40-55, with a handful of younger ones in their 20s and 30s. Hodson is 73. He has been officiating for 50 years.
“If you have a career like mine and you don’t miss a call, then you’re lying about it,” Hodson said. “You have to learn to control your emotions and how to go over and discuss it with a coach.”
Hodson said he tries to ease younger referees into the gig by assigning them to games at the youth level or to high school matchups likely to turn into blowouts with a running clock.
While Blount County doesn’t struggle quite as badly as other regions, Hodson said BCFOA would ideally like at least 50 officials. One week this season, BCFOA has five home games scheduled for the same night.
“That’s going to take every official we have to fill that whole schedule,” Hodson said. “What we try to do is recruit kids coming out of high school who played football and still like the game, but they couldn’t go any farther.”
As for the pay, officials earn roughly $100 a game at the high school level and $25 at the youth level.
“It’s not a bad part-time gig,” Denton said. “You’ve got a 50-yard line seat to all the action.”