Colorado has been steadily losing high school officials for years and the ever-aging profession threatens the future of high school sports throughout the state.
Since the 2013-14 sports season the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) has lost almost 15 percent of all registered officials.
Many more have chosen to opt-out of the 2020-21 sports season amidst concerns from the COVID-19 pandemic, worsening an already difficult year for high school sports.
“In 2019 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, I had that taken care of, but I have chosen to opt out this year because of health concerns with the pandemic,” said Gary Gabrielle a resident of Raton, New Mexico in his 26th season as an official.
Gabrielle is one of three officials from the Trinidad referee association who has chosen to opt out of the 2020 season because of the pandemic but plans to return to the court once things settle down.
The annual team of 15 that Trinidad Area Assigner and Director Greg Guzzo oversees has been shortened to 12 ahead of the upcoming 2021 basketball season which is set to start Jan. 25.
The reduced number of officials in the Trinidad area is a microcosm of the issue that plagues high school sports in Colorado.
CHSAA assistant commissioner and official’s liaison Tom Robinson estimated that ten percent of softball and football officials in Colorado opted out of their respective 2020 seasons as a direct result of the pandemic.
As COVID-19 cases hit all-time highs in Colorado and sports move indoors for the winter, the remaining sports in the 2020-21 season could see the withdrawal of more officials in a time when numbers are short.
While the pandemic reduces the number of officials available during the pandemic, the number of referees in Colorado has been declining since well before the onset of COVID-19.
“When I started at CHSAA 20 years ago as the official’s liaison the numbers were averaging 5,000 officials every year,” said Robinson. “Even at that time when we had 5,000 there was a shortage and we were still trying to get officials into the system.”
In 2013-14, CHSAA registered 5,033 high school officials, as of the 2019-20 season that number dropped to just 4281.
This decline comes at a time when CHSAA student-athlete participation hits an all-time high in Colorado.
143,614 Colorado students were involved in CHSAA certified athletics and competitions in 2018-19. Compared to 2013-14 where 143,614 participants shared over 800 more officials.
Football is Colorado’s largest sport with 24,008 participants, in 2019-20 football added 7,115 participants from the previous season, while Colorado’s football officials declined over three percent.
Similarly, in 2019-20 boys and girls basketball combined for 25,399 participants, the competitors share only 1139 officials.
Six years prior 1399 referees officiated the games of only 16,158 high school basketball players.
Why are there so few referees?
The issue is, there is no one reason.
In a 2016-17 CHSAA poll of officials that left the system, surveyors were asked why they left the profession.
Between the 278 respondents, not one of the 16 choices accumulated over one third of respondents, the most popular choice: Career demands with 24 percent.
“Right now, with this pandemic going on it is hard to get guys out of work because a lot of people work in telework and they are having meetings at five O’clock,” said Guzzo. “It is a lot harder to call your supervisor and ask for time off work to come referee.”
Referees in rural Colorado often time find themselves traveling over 100 miles between the geographically distanced rural towns adding hours to their time away from the job.
The most discouraging statistic in the 2016-17 poll?
Over 57 percent of respondents would not recommend officiating to anyone.
In a follow up 2019 CHSAA poll, over 40 percent of retiring officials cited officiating pay as the reason for their exit.
“The unfortunate part is that a lot of the younger generation really do not want to officiate. They see for the money you make in one game it isn’t worth it,” said Guzzo.
While the jump from high school to collegiate officiating is a healthy pay bump, it takes years of dedication to the cause.
Astoundingly in the follow up survey, over 60 percent of officials explained they would not recommend the profession to anyone.
While Robinson looks at the officials who have left the organization, the statistic he is most concerned with is the ones that do not.
Guzzo estimates the average age of Trinidad area referees is between 45-50, Robinson believes the statewide median is higher.
Lacking a healthy core of young officials, Colorado is years away from losing the officials that serve over 100,000 student athletes in Colorado.
Hope on the horizon
While the past six years have seen numbers diminish, there is hope on the horizon.
According to Robinson, historically difficult economic times have seen the enrollment of more new officials looking for a second source of income.
Robinson remains optimistic that post-pandemic years could see numbers of Colorado officials grow but aims to remain diligent in CHSAA’s recruitment efforts.
“We reach out to seniors to see if we can get former athletes to officiate and get into training,” Robinson said.
Contacting coaches, counselors, and colleges, CHSAA has begun implementing officiating programs to involve graduated or current student-athletes.
Robinson, a dedicated official for over 30 years, has been afforded many opportunities by the profession.
The longtime Big-12, Mountain West and Southland conference official has overseen top NCAA bowl games in his long career donning the stripes.
Robinson recently represented the Big-12 as the replay official for the 2021 College Football National Championship between Alabama and Ohio State.
“I just know how exciting it is, how challenging it is, it is almost like playing the sport,” said Robinson.
Like all other facets of life, officiating brings its challenges and imperfection to every game.
Gabrielle keeps a small card in his wallet, left to him by his third grade school teacher and officiating mentor Nash Gennaro, which reads:
“Every basketball game could use a man who knows every rule, never makes an error, can make all the correct decisions; but so far there’s been no way to get him to put down his hot dog and come out of the stands to help.”