The ratio of officials to athletes in Washington is at its lowest on record, with more than 28 high school athletes for every one official across all sports, down 23% from a decade ago.

One of the most important, yet unheralded, roles in sport is at a crossroads. It’s no secret that the men and women clad in black-and-white or, as we’re often used to in the soccer world, bright pastels, get little to no respect at every level. A Seattle Times report this week shows just how much of a crisis this is for nearly every level of every sport not only in Washington, but across the country. The reverberations could be painful and plentiful, but the most obvious effect of a continued drop in referee registration is canceled games. 

The Washington Officials Association (WOA), whose purpose is to “provide qualified officials for WIAA-sanctioned regular season and postseason events,” reports that they have lost more than 1,500 members in the last decade. There were 6,153 registered officials in Washington during the 2018-19 season with an average age of 54. 

The Times report cites a variety of studies and anecdotes that attempt to explain this decline, but they don’t arrive at a simple answer—or a solution. One particularly notable survey mentioned is one from the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) in 2017 regarding “sporting behavior.” Nearly 57% of officials surveyed said that sportsmanship was “getting worse,” and nearly 40% of the same respondents said that parents were the most significant cause of such problems. This seems to be an even more significant problem at the youth level, according to the Times, because parents and coaches are “often less educated on the rules.”

Poor sportsmanship creates an environment of negativity towards officials, which can lead to worse if it goes unchecked. Almost 47% of officials who took part in the NASO survey said that they have “felt unsafe or feared for [their] safety due to administrator, player, coach, or spectator behavior.” At the very least, these poorly paid and overworked officials often sustain constant verbal abuse from parents, coaches, and players. Such trauma can wear a person down, so it’s not hard to see why one referee administrator that the Times interviewed said that 2/3 of the officials in his organization quit before their fourth year. 

The root of all of this, and therefore the most significant reason why officiating numbers are going down nationwide, is lack of respect. When parents and coaches display a lack of sportsmanship towards officials on such a massive scale through verbal abuse, intimidation, and the like, it makes such a position virtually untenable. After all, why would you continue doing something that, after all the low pay and long hours, subjects you to such blatant disrespect? 

At Washington Youth Soccer, we’re all about respect. Obviously, that’s most obvious in our Respect Campaign, something that everyone here is passionate about and strives to push forward every single day. One of the central tenets of Respect is that “the program will strive for an environment of mutual respect across all soccer communities, within our leagues, between opponents, and with the broader organizations.” That includes match officials. 

Something has to change not only in youth soccer in Washington, but in all youth sports across the country. Without trained officials, there are no games. We must pledge to foster an environment of respect and admiration towards match officials at every level of the game. If we create a more positive culture around our sport and its officials, perhaps we can entice more to sign up and get involved. But it all starts with parents, coaches, and administrators. Next time you think about yelling at that referee for a decision you disagree with, consider the reverberations your decision might have on the individual official, the players, spectators, and more. Be an agent of change in your sport and invest in its future. 

For more information on becoming a referee in Washington, check out the Washington State Referee Committee.