Eilene Ording of the Greater Kansas City Officials Association is a high-school volleyball referee and avid fan of the sport. In addition to her experience as a volleyball mom (her daughter Libby played at William Jewell College), she also has officiated club volleyball and has been a college line judge. 

By Eilene Ording for VolleyballMag.com

In every volleyball match, there are three teams on the floor. Most of the focus is rightly on the two teams competing, but the third team, the officiating team, is just as necessary to a successful match. 

Now think of a match with the third team missing or shorthanded. It could happen.

Over the years, the number of available officials in many sports has declined, so that now, finding members for the third team is more difficult than ever. An internet search for “shortage of sports officials” brings up stories from every area of the country. Many of the stories reference the pandemic’s exacerbating the problem. Many blame the issue partly on abuse of officials.

Recruiting officials was a challenge even before the pandemic. Stories of abuse of officials, even instances of physical abuse, make the job of recruiters difficult. More than 20 states have passed legislation making assault on a sports official a crime, now with its own set of criteria for charges. Many people find they have enough stress in their lives without adding jeering crowds and irate fans, parents and even coaches and players.

The officials shortage is certainly a reality here in the Midwest.

Carrie Stephens on the stand

High School

David Thompson of the Greater Kansas City (Missouri) Officials Association (GKCOA) is a volleyball assigner and an official in multiple sports, including volleyball. GKCOA assigns hundreds of officials for middle and high-school matches during the fall season, providing them with training and support. Thompson has seen the decline in numbers of referees just as the sport has taken off.

Is the shortage real? 

“We are one of the largest associations in the state of Missouri. We have 163 active referees, but we could keep 200 busy all season long,” Thompson said.

More than 200 would allow for illness and scheduling conflicts to be handled with less effort.

In the fall of 2022, GKCOA may not be able to assign many of the middle-school matches, particularly on Tuesdays and Thursdays when most varsity and junior-varsity matches are played. In addition to the number of referees who have to stand down due to a coronavirus infection, real life intrudes to make temporary shortages more severe. For example, referees travel for their day jobs or lack childcare. College-age referees have exams and assignments due. As the population of referees ages, health problems interfere with availability. In the last few years, GKCOA has had 22 referees, umpires and officials in all sports die.

“The average age of our members is 58,” Thompson said.

Davine Davis, assistant executive director of the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA), oversees volleyball for the organization and sees the same trends.

“If a person can stay with it for the first three or four years, they usually keep going,” Davis said.

Unfortunately, she said, many good long-time officials are saying that they just don’t want to put up with the abuse that sometimes comes their way.

One volleyball official was followed off the court by a coach shouting obscenities. Schools have a responsibility for the behavior of coaches, players and spectators under National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) rules. But the pressure on schools from other sources often makes them reluctant to address fan or parent behavior. Most high-school coaches also teach, which complicates the situation in a school where a coach is at fault.

Nicole Messick, Brittany Elms, Kathie Mahan and Eilene Ording before a match in Missouri

College

College officials are in equally short supply. They almost always come from the club scene, where the long season, weekend format and long hours offer a lot of experience in a short period of time. The level of play at the older levels is also higher than that generally found in high schools.

At the college level, the focus on winning is much more important, and here coaches tend to be the ones heard above the crowd noise. I once witnessed a coach from a small college follow the officiating crew off the floor shouting, “You suck. F*** you.” Losing a five-set match to a perennial rival admittedly is upsetting. But ask yourself, could one or two calls in five sets determine the outcome? The implication is incompetence or intention to interfere in the match. Officials do not take such implications lightly after years of learning their craft.

The shortage of referees at the college level tends to be an issue of quality as well as quantity. Denise Jett is an NCAA referee and scheduler. She has also been a scheduler at the club level.

“It sometimes becomes a matter of quality. The best crew members are in demand and working matches, so you may work with a partner or line judge who may not be up to the level of the current match,” Jett said.

Newer officials need experience, but calling on them to work a match above their ability might end in a loss of confidence and withdrawal from officiating, she added.

Club

During the 2020 club season, the Heart of America Region of USA Volleyball was forced to take unusual steps to continue competition and comply with local COVID restrictions. Ken Corum, a high-school and club referee and an NCAA line judge, told of officiating club matches completely alone.

“I had the score sheet and libero tracking sheet on clipboards up on the stand and also the flip board for the score,” he said.

Corum worked all day without a down official and no line judges. He had the coaches of the two teams signal him when a libero exchange took place. Although this was not an occasion where lack of officials was the problem, imagine that scenario. Think how slow those matches must have proceeded and how many calls might have been missed just by the overload of duties. This is the effect on play that a lack of officials can cause, albeit taken to an extreme.

Now that a version of normal has returned, the club system has returned to using an actual third team to officiate under the direction of a paid official. Working club can be a lonely business for a paid official, because there is no regular partner for the R1. The R2 is usually a coach or player that changes every match. Players usually keep score and do the line judging. But who trains the R1, the paid official on the stand?

One of the issues at the club level is the availability of observers and mentors. With the shortage, everyone is on a stand somewhere, and most experienced referees want to work for money, not mentor for free.

In the club world, too, parents are hoping their daughter or son will be noticed by college recruiters. As we know, their chances to play in college are often slim. As in other sports, moms and dads are often frustrated by calls and some are unable to contain their frustration. Club coaches, too, can act out in the heat of the moment. Parental pressure is felt by coaches as well as officials.

Steve Arnell was the up ref for this match at Emporia State in Kansasi/Eilene Ording photo

Solutions

Recruiters are coming up with  ways to find new officials. There is an initiative on the NFHS website using the hashtag #BecomeAnOfficial. The hashtag leads to a page where you can express interest in being an official on a form that is forwarded to your state association’s officials coordinator. There is also an initiative in Missouri called Trade in Your Stripes, which encourages former military personnel to become officials. Players finishing high-school or college eligibility are an excellent source of new officials, and many have chosen this way to give back to the sport. And the pay and flexibility exceed the usual benefits of other part- time jobs.

In the Kansas City area, GKCOA has a website that includes training aids, links to training, officiating clinics in the summer and more. Other metropolitan areas have similar resources. Your state association will be able to direct you. NFHS has online training resources as well.

Club-volleyball officiating is available through the USA Volleyball site and its regional websites. Training materials are online as well.

As the saying goes, buy the shirt. Yes, you need a uniform shirt, whistle and a few other tools, but getting started is not expensive. The monetary payback takes only a couple of matches. The intangible payback of working with professional officials and the young women and men who play the game is priceless.

For new officials, the first step is learning the rules. NFHS rules differ from USA Volleyball rules, which differ from NCAA rules. There are charts online that explain the differences. The whole rules sets are generally available if you want to read them, but especially make reference to them. Understanding the rules is a must. If a player, coach or fan is not clear on a current rule, any comment on a call is liable to be way off target. Rules do change periodically. Most often, because the different entities are trying to make their rules sets more consistent, no easy task as it turns out.

Second, understand the difficulty of everyone’s having a different perspective on a play. From the stands, the bench, the referee stand or the line corner, all rallies look different. Also, some calls are judgment calls. If you don’t like an official’s judgment, buy the shirt.

Third, remember what, and who, you are there for. Daughters and sons don’t appreciate hearing their parents’ voices loudly disagreeing with a call. They often find it embarrassing, not helpful. I learned that from my own daughter long ago. Coach Jennifer Jacobs of Augustana University volleyball said it well when she tweeted: “Parents we are watching your sideline behavior too” (@mzjenjacobs, Twitter, April 10, 2021). Recruiters want to see high levels of play and dislike high levels of drama. Parents can sabotage their highly talented offspring by their own behavior.

Coaches are not just coaching a sport, they are impacting a young life. For the sake of players, a coach would ideally model the way mature people handle conflict, even conflict with an official. Hugh McCutcheon, former Olympics coach and head coach of the University of Minnesota volleyball team said, “We have a responsibility for holistic development–academically, socially and competitively” (@Gophervolleyball, Twitter, January 13, 2022).

Officials are being trained in how to talk to coaches, but a person doesn’t necessarily walk onto a court or field knowing how to handle conflict. It takes experience, but the right kind of experience. Toning down the conflict to a discussion of a rule can go a long way toward keeping a young official in the game until he or she can mature.

Love of the game means supporting all three teams on the court. The sport of volleyball has experienced enormous growth of late. That makes it even more important to recruit and retain good officials. The third team on the court can help make great matches happen if it is allowed to play its part in a healthy atmosphere.

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