An official problem: IUPUI class tackles issue of referee shortage in youth sports

Referee at IU football gameView print quality image
The long-term effect of referee shortages may be eventually felt at the college level, with smaller pools of officials to draw from. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University

As the saying goes, the best sports officials are the ones you don't notice -- they run a clean game, don't miss any calls and have no bearing on the final outcome.

But what if you don't notice the officials because they aren't there at all?

That day may not be far off, as state high school athletic organizations and youth sports groups nationwide are battling shortages of officials. Some have had to cancel or postpone games. The Indiana State High School Athletic Association has 8 percent fewer eligible officials this academic year than it did four years ago, while other states have had even higher percentages of decline as officials either retire or just walk away from the work, with fewer new ones taking their places.

If you didn't know this, you're not alone -- according to the 2019 Indy Sports Poll taken by IUPUI's Sports Innovation Institute, only 35 percent of Central Indiana residents are aware that there is a shortage of sports officials.

Is there a solution? An IUPUI sport management capstone class is looking for one, using human-centered design to uncover problem areas while also exploring "pain points" via observation and interviews with Indiana-based officials across sports and age groups.

What's painful, as you might imagine, is verbal abuse from fans, coaches and players. What's problematic is a flawed system that assigns officials to games, has gaps in training and education, and gets poor support from organizations that employ officials.

"We pushed the students to not just take the media narrative that people yell at the refs and parents behave badly -- the sensational things," said professor David Pierce, who leads the capstone class in the IUPUI School of Health and Human Sciences. "That plays a part, but we were able to find some problem spaces through our class process."

One crucial area for turning the tide in the shortage of officials is getting young people into the field, as officiating can be financially rewarding while also being an entry point into the sports world. IUPUI senior Neil Gusky is interning at the Brookside Community Center, where Brookside Community Play is adding an officiating track to its programming so students from low-income areas can obtain training to be an official and pursue their passion for sports in that way.

"One of our big points is that even if it isn't something you want to stick with, you'll learn skills that will transfer into any job: teamwork, communication, how to conduct yourself under pressure," said Gusky, a senior from Noblesville who was a soccer official in high school.

For those who do stick with the work, other students in the capstone class are exploring alternative training methods, wellness programs, rating systems and -- hello, sports parents -- an empathy program for fans, players and coaches to help restore mutual respect between the public and the folks in stripes.

"The easy answer for governing bodies and referee associations is to put blame on parents and fans -- you can find all those crazy YouTube videos," Pierce said. "But at the end of the day, there is much more to it, and the design thinking process really allowed our students to uncover important problem spaces."

Ultimately, Pierce said, IUPUI could also leverage its technology assets to create an educational training program that could be sold nationwide.

Whatever it takes for the games to go on, with officials present but blessedly unnoticed.