Prep Football: Gridiron Zebras Facing Population Crisis
Dazzle in Decline: Friday Night Lights Tradition Imperilled by Lack of Football Officials
By Jordan Nailon
As head of the Southwest Washington Football Officials Association these days, Bob Berg finds himself acting much like an impassioned biologist calling attention to a population in decline. According to Berg, if things don’t change soon, the black and white striped bipeds that traipse area fields may one day soon go extinct.
The pool of football officials has been in decline for at least a decade now. Berg says ten years ago the SW Washington Football Officials Association boasted 53 officials whereas today there are only 40 zebras in the local dazzle. Two score may seem like a fair number of officials but when you take a look at the math, the dearth of available eyeballs and whistles becomes readily apparent.
The SW Washington Football Officials Association covers games in Lewis, Thurston, Pacific and Grays Harbor counties for 14 different school districts. Those assignments include middle school, C-squad, junior varsity and varsity games for a total of more than 200 contests each year. According to Berg, at least 32 officials are needed on any given night and up to 45 officials are required on the busiest Friday nights of the fall.
“We have a chronic shortage of officials,” Berg said bluntly.
He noted that official assigners have already been forced to ask athletic directors to move Friday night games to Thursday or Saturday in order to help cover the shortage. He added that on one occasion, he even had to hire half of an official crew from Yakima to drive over the mountains and work a Morton-White Pass game.
“Without the athletic directors helping us out, I’m going to have to call and tell somebody that we can not cover your game this Friday,” Berg said as he forecast a dire future.
He says that if recent trends hold, the situation is not likely to improve any time soon. Currently, the median age of members in the SW Washington Football Officials Association is over 55 years and many of those veteran crew members are quickly approaching retirement age.
In an attempt to stem the exodus of officials, Berg has resorted to an assortment of tactics in recent years. The association has done radio spots and tabled at the county fair in order to recruit new officials. They’ve even run a help wanted advertisement in local newspapers.
“To be honest, help wanted is the worst because those people are only concerned about making money,” said Berg. “The most success we have in recruiting officials is when Person A invites Person B, ‘Come to the meeting with me. You seem like you might like to be an official.’”
Berg says that when an experienced official brings in a rookie, they can serve as a trusted mentor and relay “realistic expectations about how their career should progress.”
Berg added that officials’ associations have been having a particularly difficult time recruiting and retaining younger adults to the ranks in recent years.
“Obviously it’s not for everybody. There are several things. The pay is not great, but the main thing is that there’s a tremendous work ethic that’s required and patience that’s required. What I mean by that is that you don’t get to go work the state championship game two years after you start and a lot of younger people don’t like that delayed gratification,” explained Berg.
The pay for varsity football games is about $65 per game, depending on mileage, but Berg advises that new officials should be prepared to spend a few years earning their stripes on the middle school, C-squad and JV circuit. He says that the incremental progression is largely intended to protect new officials from the hypercritical eyes of varsity football coaches.
“Varsity coaches know the rules and they know our mechanics,” said Berg. “The last thing we want is for somebody to have a bad experience and not come back.”
In fact, retaining new recruits has proven to be nearly as difficult as finding new prospects to begin with. Berg says that the SW WA Football Officials Association suffers from a 50 percent dropout rate for new officials each year, so a recruitment class of eight typically dwindles to just two officials after four years. However, Berg says officials who stick around for five full years tend to hang onto their whistle for the long haul.
A veteran official himself who only recently retired from working collegiate games, Berg reiterated the need to infuse the current crop of officials with a youth movement.
“We need younger people. We send out things to coaches and tell them to tell their seniors ‘If you want to be close to the game, come on out and officiate,’” said Berg.
Berg, who was once the police chief of Centralia, says that there are several dividends that’s kept him invested in football officiating for so many years. His initial motivation was to find an avenue to have positive interactions with the area’s youth. As he continued to work on his craft, Berg found other rewards for his work as well.
“Number one, if you’ve been playing the sport you get a chance to continue participating in the sport, albeit in a different way, for many many years after you could play it,” said Berg. “Secondly, it’s the best seat in the house. And you get to interact. There’s nothing like it.”
Berg added that he found pleasure in refining his skills as an official over the years and enjoyed the opportunity to give back to the community. In order to sweeten the pot for prospective officials, the SW Washington Football Officials Association even provides a starter kit for rookie whistle blowers.
“One of the things that we do is we provide a starter kid to new officials so they don’t have to go out and buy everything,” said Berg. “They just have to buy their pants and shoes. We even pay their fee for the first year.”
The most important thing, said Berg, is that the stock of officials rebounds before its reaches a tipping point that will put the future of football itself in jeopardy.
“It’s not a problem just with our association. In fact, the national association of officials is on a huge, huge campaign to try to retain officials because without us, you don’t get to play the game,” said Berg.
The first preseason meeting for area football officials will take place on Aug. 14. Anyone interested joining the ranks or attending the meeting is encouraged to contact Berg by phone at 360-269-6466 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.