There are several thousand Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association officials who work with the more than 550 schools throughout Wisconsin participating in various sports.
But WIAA officials say they’re reaching a crisis point with a shortage of officials.
Now a proposed bill, Bill LRB 4781, hopes to change the downward trend.
A survey done by the WIAA shows 43 percent of officials quit within their first three years working.
Many of those cases are because officials don’t want to put up with the abuse from parents, fans, and coaches.
“There is a national crisis, a shortage of officials. Those that we have are about an average age of 58 years old, they’re graying rapidly and there’s not the ranks and numbers behind them,” said WIAA Executive Director Dave Anderson.
It’s a problem many officials of all sports have dealt with during their tenure.
Verbal, and sometimes physical abuse, from parents, fans, and coaches who are unhappy with how they’re officiating.
“Unfortunately I’ve had fans follow me to my car and continue to yell at me after the game was over. It wasn’t a pleasant experience and at times I felt a little threatened,” said WIAA Official Nick White.
A new bill introduced this week into the state legislature hopes to show abusing officials will not be tolerated in Wisconsin.
State Sen. Jeff Smith is one of the lawmakers leading the effort.
“There’s going to be cases where people may get passionately carried away and yell things. But it’s a whole other ballgame when they actually physically try to engage an umpire or a referee,” said Smith.
Under the proposed bill, it would become a Class A misdemeanor to harass or intimidate a sports official.
Currently it’s a Class B forfeiture, which results in a fine.
Abuse is one of the reasons WIAA officials say there’s a shortage of referees.
“There’s been a lack of interest in continuing officiating from those officials that work Great Northwest League or lower levels, because of the verbal abuse they take from fans,” explains White. “They don’t want to stick with it.”
White has officiated football and basketball at the varsity level for 15 years.
“You’ve got to have thick skin. You have to understand that a majority of the fans haven’t read the rule book, they haven’t taken the rules test, they haven’t watched the video that we’re required to do,” he said.
But for some officials, it’s not easy to let the abuse go.
This year, there have been sporting events across Wisconsin cancelled due to a lack of officials willing to work.
“Our behaviors need to change, we need to support and appreciate, you know, high school and amateur sport officials or they will disappear,” said Anderson.
It can also take away some of the fun for the coaches and players.
“If we don’t work together and it becomes a very friction like, it makes the game unpleasant so the more we can work together and the more we can talk to each other without the extracurricular coming from the stands, the easier it is,”said Regis Girls Head Basketball Coach Patrick Boughton.
Under the bill, anyone convicted would have to work up to 40 hours of community service.
“They may have to actually work at a game or work with referees or umpires or work in a school. Or do something rather than pay a fine,” said Smith.
Those in the athletic community say the hope is to bring the fun back to amateur sports for everyone involved.
The bill has bi-partisan support in both the assembly and state senate.
While it currently is not assigned to a committee, Smith hopes the bill gets to the floor before the end of the current legislative session.