WI has a high school referee shortage, and just a referee problem


In 1987 I was asked to join the Wisconsin Scorers and Timers association (WISTA) an organization sanctioned by the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). WISTA provides officials to time and score the boys and girls basketball games for MPS and has been doing so for more than 60 years.

Do the math. I’ve been working the scorer’s table for MPS games (and college games, too) for 34 years. And I’ve seen countless games.

The last couple of years WI newspapers have reported on the lack of sufficient numbers of high school basketball floor officials. The most recent came this week when Mark Stewart of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel included the following in a piece profiling official Tyrone Nichols:

For years the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association warned of a shortage of officials and has tried to bring new blood into the ranks. The pandemic just made the situation worse.

According to the WIAA there were 9,249 officials last year for its sponsored sports. This year, as of Tuesday, there were 7,345, a decrease of 21%.

So there’s a shortage of officials, right?


So, we need more officials, right?

I would say no.

We do not need more officials.

What we do need are more qualified, effective, efficient officials.

Truth is the ability of officials has slowly, steadily declined over the years to where it’s now sorely lacking. I know. I’ve witnessed it firsthand.

There’ve been so many instances I could personally document that they’d fill a phone book. But let me relate just the latest. Follow along as best you can.

I worked a rare high school boy’s game in the city of Milwaukee this week. It was NOT an MPS game since their athletics have been canceled since last March.

The floor officials were familiar to us. When it comes to officials we scorers and timers know them all. Love them all. Happy to see them. But some are just better than others. And generally speaking, today’s officials as a group are just not as good as those 10, 20, 30 years ago

In my high school game this week the first half went smoothly with no issues. The game was one-sided and didn’t appear that it was ever to be contested in the second half.

And then, it happened. The visiting team took a timeout, requesting a :30 timeout. We call that a short timeout. Normally teams are allowed two of those per game. On more than one occasion in the first half my partner, the official scorer informed coaches from each team they had each taken their allotment of two short timeouts. In this world turned upside down by the virus high school teams are now allowed an extra short timeout called the Covid timeout.

So now the visiting team was attempting to call their third short timeout. Not a problem. But I reiterated that the visiting team had called TWO short timeouts in the first half. That’s where things got goofy.

For a brief moment the official scorer thought that because the visitors had used up their short timeouts (two per game) that the timeout they requested had to be a full :60 timeout. Quickly we adjusted and allowed the visitors their Covid timeout (what a joke). But the lead official erupted at the table’s information that the visitors had used two short timeouts in the 1st half. They did as we informed the lead official that the scorer did what he always does: write down in the official scorebook the times when timeouts are called.

The lead official stood at the visitors bench and literally yelled at the scorer and me that no, the visitors only took one short timeout. Since my partner is a lot more mild-mannered than I am I responded and mentioned a second time the visitors had taken two short timeouts in the first half (and yes, that was important).

What happened next was something I’ve never seen in 34 years of working high school basketball. The lead official yelled, and I mean yelled, “I have definitive knowledge that they (the visitors) took only one time out in the first half.” He was giving us crap so I said again that the scorer has it all written done.

Then came a loud whistle.

One of the other officials, a solid veteran referee, blew his whistle and approached the scorer’s table with an angry look on his face. I’m paraphrasing now as he banged his hand on the table:

“What are doing? This is the table. We are supposed to be working with the guys at the table. Let’s stop arguing with the table!”

The lead official stormed away and yelled loud to enough to be heard in a stunned silent gym that he would argue with table “when they’re wrong.”

He made few calls the rest of the game, and never approached the scorer’s table again.

After the game after he changed in the locker room and came out to talk to us in an effort to defend himself claiming he never yelled at us (he did), that he talked directly to us at the table (he actually yelled at us while standing by the visitors bench) and that he had “definite knowledge he was correct about the number of fouls that had been called.

I couldn’t take it anymore. After telling him nicely that he brought the subject up all over again, I said he should have come right to the table and discuss everything quietly and respectfully instead of showing up his partners (the scorer and timer). And the coup de grace was when I said if he could do the scorer’s job (keep track of timeouts as well as work the floor), then he must be really outstanding.

I reiterated that once the game resumed we at the table forgot what happened and concentrated on the game at hand. Everyone went home OK, but I’ve never seen a referee, and a veteran one at that, behave that way (He’s average BTW).

Again, we have a shortage of referees, that’s true. As a result, officials are being assigned games simply to get bodies on the floor. That’s unfair to everyone.

6 thoughts on “WI has a high school referee shortage, and just a referee problem

    • I am so sorry this happened. As officials, we are to work with our teammates at the table. I had a hard time reading this article and not feeling mad at the lead official. It just doesn’t make sense. However, there are some great officials working various sports. I was fortunate enough to work with two great officials last night for a girls sectional semi final basketball game. The table was great and the atmosphere was electric.



    Over 30 years of blowing the whistle – from the Menomonee Valley to the San Fernando Valley, Milwaukee’s Rufus King to LA’s Crenshaw High, Vegas AAU to the Mamba Center, Bradley to Staples, you meet a lot of referees – some good, some not-so-good, many trying to move up, many more moving down, and plenty staying in the same place. Not every basketball official you run into has the same training, goals, perspective, or skill. No excuse offered but read between the lines. Semantics cannot cloud real issues. When we say we need more “good, quality” officials – that is a fundamental SUBSET and understatement of the growing issue that we simply need MORE total OFFICIALS period. This is inarguable. It is a GIVEN – mathematically, logistically, and from the standpoint of legacy, development, adaptation, and preservation of the game. We might want to refrain from playing with words and get right to the issue.

    There are simply not enough OFFICIALS to cover the 1000’s of games in multiple sports that happen year-round now, That’s a fact. Additionally, basketball being a definitive example, many sports at the highest levels have now added a third official INCREASING the urgency for recruitment, training, and development. We can discuss why – growing animosity, volatile circumstances, violent fans, excessive parents, poor recruitment, lack of sportsmanship, security, pay, travel, politics, on and on. There are simply not enough PEOPLE willing to deal with the anger and threats from the stands, and disrespect or poor attitudes from players and coaches, and THEN have to put up with criticism, personal agendas, and politics from their peers, fellow officials, and colleagues, all for a few bucks while traveling during winter conditions. Makes it sometimes difficult to maintain proper focus on the kids and the game.

    When we say MORE, we take sensible precaution for that to actually mean GOOD, QUALITY – just like any other profession, skill, or trade. Plumbers, teachers, doctors, scientists – we assume MORE INCORPORATES quality. Before I judge, before I assume, I need facts. There are two sides to every story. We’ve heard one side in this view from the table. I surely would like to hear from the floor officials involved as to their perspective on what occurred. I agree in totality, without exception, there cannot be confrontations and arguments between professional game officials – table or floor – in any game situation. Did the table and floor crew meet or talk prior to the game regarding potential situations like this? Aren’t we all on the same TEAM? All parties MUST be PROFESSIONAL enough to stop, pause, gain calm and proceed in the business-like manner required. You are being paid to do a job!

    Professional and career development is enhanced by the evidence of practical, common sense, decision making, the ability to maintain control, and operating effectively within an environment that includes volatility, emotion, rapid movement, noise, distraction, constant motion, partners, rules knowledge and application, and SOP.

    You don’t need to take the chauffeur-driven limo down to the corner store. Practical application, logic, common sense enhanced by experience and the ability to think, anticipate, and react in accordance with the age-specific level of athletic competition should provide proper application. Adults have a responsibility – especially as officials and those who manage the game – to maintain civility and professionalism. Keep your opinion in your pocket and understand you are a role model for kids. Set the proper example by simply being professional. Then, if you want to improve and use these situations to advance and get better, figure out how to be able to sit down after a game and have what we use to call a post-game with your fellow adult officials. Remember those?

    As Tommy Purdoff used to tell me, “If you don’t maintain control, who will? You are the last bastion.”

    Billy Young


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