Over the next two weeks, the distinctive sound of whistles will begin blowing on football fields and inside gyms across the state as Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) certified officials begin the fall sports season.
But this year, there will be nearly 20 percent fewer of them available.
In the past 10 years, that overall number was a troubling 35 percent.
“Without officials, it’s just recess,” says Oregon Athletic Officials Association (OAOA) Executive Director Clark Sanders, who suggests while there are a number of factors in the steady decline of available officials since 2012, one of the main reasons is a parallel decline in sportsmanship from the stands.
Last year, a survey of departing officials taken by the OSAA showed that “family” and “job demands” were among the top reasons many officials were either hanging up their whistles or deciding to not grab a whistle at all.
But the number one reason?
A growing lack of respect and sportsmanship by spectators, coaches and players — in that order.
“The other two areas of concern we can’t really impact,” said OSAA Assistant Executive Director Brad Garrett. “But the lack of sportsmanship and respect are definitely things we can — and should — do something about.”
Jack Folliard, executive director of the OSAA, agrees.
“I think generally, the lack of respect for authority in our society runs in many directions of society, and that includes spectators. For the most part, the kids are great. It’s the spectators and, in some cases, coaches,” says Folliard.
To address the issue, the OSAA established a special committee last year that includes high school athletic directors and coaches who meet to discuss the problem and coming up with solutions to curb the trend.
Siuslaw High School Athletic Director Chris Johnson says that he feels the issue is quickly approaching a crisis stage. The struggle to create and maintain a workable game schedule for sports like baseball, football and volleyball are compounded when the availability of officials becomes a factor.
“We had an athletic director workshop and it was clear that we all needed to take a hard stance before we get to that crisis stage,” says Johnson. “It’s going to require a mindset change for everyone.”
As a result, athletic directors and principals from all schools in the Far West League, in conjunction with the OSAA, have agreed to take steps to foster a safer, more respectful environment at athletic events.
In a message shared by schools throughout the Far West League, parents, coaches and players are being reminded that, “high school athletics are an extension of the classroom, and that lessons are best learned when we show respect to everyone involved.”
The message has been appearing on school websites and social media pages since last week in preparation for the start of fall sports contests Aug. 31.
“In the past 10 years, we have seen the number of officials decline by 35 percent. Officials’ number one reason for leaving the profession is the lack of respect they receive from spectators,” the message adds. “Far West League schools are taking definitive action to help stem this trend.”
The message from school administrators explains that overtly negative speech or actions will be dealt with by immediate removal from the contest.
“If there are no referees willing to work at our schools, there will be no games at our schools,” the message warns.
At Siuslaw, the cheerleading squad is taking a preemptive stand by modifying or eliminating cheers in order to foster sportsmanship.
“We’re really hoping our fans will realize the importance of this,” says Johnson. “It’s not just about the games. It’s also about being an example to our kids. I do feel like our fans and students are as good and respectful as fans anywhere. But I want us to be a leader.”
Siuslaw’s fall sports season officially kicks off Thursday, Aug. 31, when the Viking volleyball opens with pre-league competition at Junction City at 4 p.m.