In a 50-minute morning session in late September, 20 Taunton High students listened with rapt attention as Brad Koneski, the school’s wellness teacher, explained the importance of a yellow card in a soccer game. That knowledge would be put to use by the students to officiate freshman and junior varsity games that are impacted by the state and nationwide shortage of referees.
At the beginning of the school year, Taunton athletic director Mark Ottavianelli and community liaison Chris Green were scrambling to find officials for high school games yet again, specifically for soccer and football.
Jeff Kearney, assigner of referees for the Bay State Conference, Tri-Valley League, Dual County League, and Hockomock League, said there is a shortage of soccer referees this fall with “some games having no officials at all.”
He linked the behavior of spectators and coaches to the decline in referee participation, which is nothing new — referee shortages have been well-documented in recent years.
But now, some schools are taking matters into their own hands. That’s what Ottavianelli and Green were thinking when they asked themselves: “Why not train our kids to do this?”
Taunton’s sports officiating class meets daily, as a physical education elective, to learn rules and regulations of each sport followed by practical demonstrations on the field. It is based on curriculums provided by RefReps, an officiating education system, and the MIAA. Each student gets two wellness credits for the class.
The MIAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations are working together to improve the state of refereeing through initiatives like using social media to deliver messages of appropriate conduct, releasing videos that encourage parents and coaches to exercise constraint over their emotions, and introducing curriculum that trains students to officiate.
Beginning in August, the NFHS forged a three-year collaboration with RefReps to address the shortage of referees through professional development camps and other initiatives.
“The MIAA purchased about 105 licenses for every board across Massachusetts,” said MIAA Associate Executive Director Richard Pearson. “We purchased one license opportunity for every one of our boards that has rules in reference. So the MIAA as an entity is trying to support the education of all officials across the state and we’d like it to be integrated into schools. We believe it could be a very efficient vehicle to teach. We are partnering with RefReps to promote their product, the education opportunity, and then, hopefully, help solidify and re-energize the officiating ranks.”
The MIAA reported a 16 percent drop in the number of on-field football officials between 2018 and 2022. This fall, like a year ago, schools are scheduling varsity football games on Thursdays to help address the shortage.
In Massachusetts, 1,100 officials quit their jobs in the past five years. Across the country, 50,000 of them decided to walk away from officiating games.
“You take pride in what you do,” said Ron Judd, a Central Massachusetts soccer official. “And then all of a sudden somebody’s criticizing that. And yeah, we make mistakes. Some people make more than others, unfortunately, but that’s in every occupation.”
Judd started officiating soccer games 27 years ago. Before that, he was a soccer player himself. In one high school game, he fought with the referee officiating his game and the referee suggested that he should take up officiating. So he did.
“My journey from player to coach to referee has been satisfying,” said Judd, now a Central Mass rules interpreter. “My interactions with the players are what I love the most. That’s how the story began for me.”
However, the 27-year veteran began sensing the decline in interest to become a referee and it hit home when both his young sons decided to quit officiating. After facing abuse from coaches and parents, Judd’s sons said the pressure was too much and the emotional toll was “not worth it.”
“Pressure and stress are not the only factors,” said Judd. “There is a lack of support and guidance for the young officials. It is important to understand that referee shortages persist in various leagues due to lack of mentorship and representation.”
Taunton High’s sports officiating class is one solution. During the class, Ottavianelli and Koneski reminded the students that frustrated parents and fans will constantly “breathe down their necks.”
“Always remember, 50 percent of the people are going to be mad at you,” said Koneski. “No matter what call you make. That’s the way you will develop some thick skin. I went home a number of times thinking ‘oh, my goodness, what did I do? I messed up this call.’ But you get better as you get older. We must maintain emotional control in high-pressure situations.”
Koneski’s students are not worried about these situations. They said they “feel prepared” to take on the role and understand the potential abuse that might come with it. The support Koneski and Ottavianelli extend plays a major role.
“We’ve been taught to deal with the abuse by keeping our emotions in check,” said Taunton junior Jillian Doherty. “If it gets to an extreme level, we have been told to let somebody else handle it and not to do it ourselves. It is definitely a worry but I don’t think it would be that big of a deal because I know there’s people to make that stop.”
Two students recently got the chance to put their officiating skills into practice. Juniors Tyson Carter and Erick Foster worked a Milford-Taunton girls’ junior varsity soccer game and, according to Ottavianelli, passed with flying colors.
“They really enjoyed it,” said Ottavianelli. “It was a good experience for them to work with a certified official who was very patient with them and explained a lot of different things. They got to experience the pregame and halftime discussions and were very pleased with it. I think it’s an incredible opportunity that’s not only going to benefit our student athletes, but also the sports officiating industry.”