Sports fans love stats – so here’s a good one: on any given Friday in football season, the Miracle Strip Officials Association (MSOA) needs a minimum of 28 officials to ensure every game has enough officials.
Right now – if everyone is healthy, the association has a total of 30 refs ready to officiate a game for the 2022 football season.
Refereeing in the area is in crisis mode as the MSOA searches for bodies to fill zebra stripes. The problem is getting worse, according to MSOA Assigner Michael Parks. Parks himself had a rickety start as an official.
“I got thrown out of a co-ed softball game at Incirlik, Turkey, in 1976,” Parks remembers, “And the guy told me, ‘you think you can do better?’ I said, ‘I know I can do better than you.’ And the next night, I showed up and put on the worst display of officiating in the history of the world. But I’m starting my 46th year refereeing high school football.”
In 1992, when Parks moved to the area, MSOA had about 80 referees ready to officiate a game at any given time. Teams’ game times hang by a thread at any given moment. “I hate noon on Fridays,” Parks said, “because I sit here threatened by a phone call. Yeah, because [you get] one phone call, you’re screwed.”
Parks, 75, says that he is just a little bit older than the average official in the MSOA. On average, an official is in his mid to late 50s. Almost no one younger than 40 signs up to ref games. COVID caused significant problems for officiating games in 2021.
“And then when COVID hit, it chased a good percentage of our guys away,” Parks said, “[COVID], on top of sportsmanship, on top of the low pay, on top of the number of games. The officials who leave simply don’t get replaced. Add in the exploding population growth and the MSOA can’t keep up.
“Every time we turn around, they build Destin High School, they build Davidson… every time we turn around, they’re building a new school, which just multiplies the number of games that we have to officiate. And with less people, guys are working a lot more than they actually want to. Nobody makes a living at officiating high school football, trust me. And you know, guys want to work a couple nights a week, and now they’re working three, sometimes four.”
Last year, the worst happened to him personally. He had the Pace-Milton High School game with a buddy when – honestly, he tells it better as a stream of consciousness.
“Well, I had Pace-Milton last year and they both stunk,” Parks said, referring to the rivalry game between Pace and Milton High Schools in Santa Rosa County. “But it was still Pace-Milton, because they fight over marbles. I drive to Pace and I’m getting out of the car. My buddy David Owens [a fellow official] pulls up, and he gets out of the car. He grabs his side and he says, ‘Man, I don’t feel good,’ and he passes half on the ground. They took him to the hospital that night and he spent the night in the hospital, so I had to end up working Milton-Pace with a four-man crew which was not a lot of fun.”
The fewer refs there are means that there is a hardened cadre of referees that don’t care what a parent with an overinflated sense of their child’s talents says – they’ll just chuck em out.
But it’s harder to get younger guys to join the herd of zebras.
“But the Millennials don’t want to get yelled at, the Millennials have been given trophies their whole life for participating, and the Millennials have a lot more things to do than we did growing up,” said Parks.
He says it’s not the coaches that new and old refs alike have to worry about – it’s the parents. (I know, you’re shocked).
“Sportsmanship has just gotten ridiculous. And it’s not so much the players. It’s the parents that are driving these guys away,” said Parks, “The parents have gotten absolutely stupid. To put it bluntly, they think their kid will be [a professional athlete] and that the NFL draft is coming up.”
Longtime local sports broadcaster Steve Nissim has seen the problem intensify over his career as well. “Because just like everything in society there’s less civility nowadays,” Nissim mused. “And that takes a toll on the referee. So I think, you know, if people would lighten up on them, let them do their jobs, and they’d obviously you gotta hold them accountable to a degree they gotta be prepared. But outside of that, you know, normal human error. There has to be more grace for that. And I think a lack of grace is contributing to less people wanting to do it.”
Ref Mike Parks has a couple of suggestions as to how to solve the official shortage for local sports. Some of the suggestions are tongue-in-cheek, I’m sure, but I’m just the reporter – so I’ll leave it for you to decide which are legit and which aren’t.
Ok, I’ll tell you – it’s three and four. I’m pretty sure it’s three and four.
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