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Student-athletes continue to face the consequences of COVID-19

Leo Grandmaison
A referee sprints down the sideline, while officiating a soccer game.

Although most Tamalpais Union High School District students returned from quarantine in April 2021, student-athletes are continuing to face the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic three years later. Since March of 2020, the employment of referees has drastically declined, leading to complications in high school sports. A vital part of sports games, referees officiate the game from an unbiased perspective.

Accomplished referee Jon Bontz experienced refereeing during the pandemic as the organizer and president of the High School Referee Association.  

“We have an extreme shortage of referees. We get by, but just barely,” Bontz said. 

A referee running through the middle of the field, while officiating a soccer game. (Leo Grandmaison)

The job has become less desirable since the COVID lockdown. During the lockdown, referees were left without jobs as all sports went on hold, deemed unsafe by not meeting pandemic health regulations. Many referees sought employment elsewhere during the pandemic, in order to remain financially stable. The lack of employee health benefits through refereeing also drove many to seek alternative forms of work. 

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The COVID pandemic has clearly brought about this decrease of referees. A study conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations shows that around 50,000 past referees have not returned as sporting officials at the high school level since the 2018-19 season, the last full school year unaffected by the pandemic.

Archie Williams junior Nolan Marsh began to work as a licensed grassroots referee at the tail end of the COVID pandemic in 2021, and was affected by the changes to refereeing during COVID. 

“It constricted our ability to officiate games due to a lot of the athletes not being able to participate in sports,” Nolan said.

The mandated lockdown also led to out-of-shape referees, unfit to officiate a sports game. 

“COVID impacted a lot of the older referees, who were not able to maintain their fitness,” Bontz said.  

Refereeing sports can be more difficult than it may seem, as officiating the game means you must be able to keep up with the fit athletes so as to not slow down the game. According to Runners World, elite soccer referees “will cover six to eight miles [per game] while scrutinizing every move of the action.”

Referees need to have advanced social skills, as they regularly have to deal with other referees, assigners, players, and coaches. Players can become emotional and difficult to deal with during games. By being able to infer how the players feel, referees make smart decisions that keep the game running smoothly. 

Archie Williams sports player looking at empty field after their game was canceled due to the lack of referees. (Leo Grandmaison)

“[Refereeing] certainly requires good social skills. I like the phrase ‘reading the room,’ being able to understand the atmosphere of the game, which is different with each game,” Bontz said. 

There were appropriate numbers of referees prior to COVID, as the flexible hours made the job especially desirable to young adults who wanted to make money fast. During lockdown, with sports put on hold, the usual crop of youth referees were not able to complete training. 

“We really lost two seasons of soccer from COVID. So for two years, there was no recruiting of new officials, no training of new officials, so two entire years lost of new blood,” Bontz said. 

Sports still suffer from a severe shortage of referees. The lack of referees leads to cancellation of sporting events.

Archie Williams sophomore Aidan Dunn plays goalie for Archie William’s varsity soccer team and Santa Rosa United Soccer Club. He has been affected by the referee shortage firsthand. 

“At least two or three times, my club team has had games canceled because we haven’t had refs,” Aidan said.

Regularly for youth sporting events, a referee shows up, but may be forced to officiate the game alone. 

“The majority of times during the JV season, we’d have only one or two refs, and sometimes if we knew that there was only one or two refs, you were able to cheat on the offsides [rule] a little bit because you knew they wouldn’t call it,” Aidan said. 

Having only one or two referees in a soccer game allows the game to continue without cancelation, but it affects the quality of officiating. 

“The quality of officiating certainly is hurt from the lack of referees,” Bontz said.

Sports around Marin County struggle due to the lack of officials. Archie Williams Athletic Director Jett Russell organizes and schedules officials for sporting events at the school. 

 “For JV baseball, [due to the lack of officials], we have to have coaches umpire,” Russell said.  

Varsity sports are also suffering from the reduction of available referees. At Archie Williams, both boys and girls lacrosse struggle to schedule games, and without the games, their chances of making a postseason run could decrease. 

“Yes, [sports around the county suffer from the lack of officials,] particularly boys and girls lacrosse. It’s unfortunate, because they need games to potentially qualify for North Coast Section playoffs… and we can’t get games because there’s not enough officials. So it’s pretty unfortunate,” Russell said. Despite the frustrating repercussions, the ref shortage is expected to rebound. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts from the year 2022 to 2032 the number of sporting officials should grow 10%, providing a hopeful future for referees and other sporting officials.

This story was originally published on The Pitch on May 6, 2024.