by Mike Beas, Special to IHSAA.org
Indiana high school athletics has more than its share of well-known traditions, though the pursuit of game officials tends to settle quietly into the background.
However, it, too, remains a most vital component in order for every one of the 22 sports sanctioned by the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) to complete its season as seamlessly as possible.
The IHSAA in an effort to not only expand its pool of officials, but broaden each individual’s knowledge, is working with RefReps, which offers comprehensive online officiating education courses that include an interactive training video, instructor guides, assessments and more.
RefReps’ mission is to educate the next generation of high school sports officials so that he or she is best equipped with the skills necessary before confidently setting foot on the football field, wrestling mat, softball diamond, etc.
“What is unique about Indiana is it was the first state to pilot this in the high schools,” said Kyle Armstrong, founder and CEO of RefReps, which is now in its third year. “In the spring of 2022, we had seven high schools pilot this, and, if you fast-forward to today, we’ll be in around 500 schools in 33 different states.”
Representing Indiana on the ground floor of this effort were, in alphabetical order, Avon, Bedford North Lawrence, Brownsburg, Kokomo, Mitchell, Pioneer and South Bend Adams.
The number grew to 51 Indiana high schools incorporating RefReps during the 2022-2023 school year; in excess of 100 are expected to take part this school year.
“If you look at the trajectory of licensed officials in Indiana from the 2015-2016 school year to 2016-2017, it went up by 43 officials,” said Armstrong. “That was the last year the number went up, and every year up to 2021-2022, it had dropped by over 1,000 officials.
“It had gone down, down, down, down, down, and, boom, we do the pilot program, and it goes up by over 300 officials.”
The global outbreak of COVID-19 eliminated all high school sports in Indiana during the 2020 spring season, decreasing the number of officials to 5,829 during the uncertain times surrounding the 2021-2022 school year.
A comeback of sorts took place in 2022-2023 with the number rising to 6,158.
Compare this to the 2016-2017 school year in which there were 6,907 officials. There was a time, according to IHSAA Assistant Commissioner Brian Lewis, where that total regularly exceeded 7,000 officials.
RefReps is helping push these numbers back up.
“The two years following COVID, we saw a big drop. Many officials paused during COVID and then never returned. We are beginning to see an increased number of officials, but we must continue to get the next generation of officials started,” said Lewis. “There is a myriad of reasons for the official shortage across the country.”
“We have a shortage of officials because there are more contests being played, whether it’s travel ball or something else. The average age of officials is upwards of 54 years old, so as they retire, are we getting enough of the next generation involved?”
The uncertainty brought on by a pandemic played a role in the decrease in officials.
However, other factors trickled in. One being persons no longer wanting to subject themselves to hostile fan bases.
“I think part of it is we went through a two-year span of contests not being played or fans being limited,” said Lewis. “People were at home. They were sitting in their house. We come out of that, and sportsmanship, egregious behavior has just been off the charts. We are seeing it more in the travel world, and in the AAU world, but it’s starting to sneak into education-based athletics. Officials, prefer to officiate in an education-based system because we have administrators and staff who can control that atmosphere a little bit.”
Using RefReps in state high schools and colleges enables Indiana to cast a wider net than before in gauging the interest of young people interested in becoming a high school official.
According to Armstrong, the program is extremely flexible in that it can be taught.
“Most high schools will have an actual stand-alone sports officiating class,” he said. “The second option is to take our materials and use them in the pre-existing physical education classes.”
For more information, prospective high school officials can go to refreps.com.
“We want to increase the number of new officials, but I’ll get calls all the time saying you need to lower your expectations, or you need to lower your standards, and we’re not going to do that,” said Lewis. “We hold our officials to a very high standard, and we are not going to sacrifice those standards to increase numbers. We are in the business of education-based athletics and the business of kids.”
“We have different requirements when it comes to tournament eligibility, but we’re looking at ways to give younger officials the ability to advance in the officiating world to make that a little bit easier.”