Although the profession of athletic officiating has made national news with the struggles of replacement officials in the NFL, Vermont soccer fans may not have to look that far to feel the effects of the unrest that is growing within their local officials’ association.
In 2012, there were a grand total of 10 new inductees to the Vermont Soccer Officials Association, the organization that is responsible for officiating varsity soccer matches throughout the State. These 10 new officials do not nearly make up for the 28 officials who, for 2012, elected to give up their whistle to pursue other endeavors. Although the declining numbers of referees alone is a significant concern, there is also a growing concern that the profession is aging drastically, leaving very few referees in the State that are less than 40 years of age. "The new people are older to begin with" states Bob Abrahamson, a long time referee who also served as the Southern Vermont soccer referee assigner for 45 years, "there are just not enough young people in the profession right now".
This season, VSOA assignors, Frank Martel and Terry Harlow, have assigned a total of 1,014 boys’ and girls’ soccer games to the 168 active officials in Vermont. These numbers do not take into account the large number of sub varsity games that are assigned by local athletic directors which, according to Brattleboro High School Athletic Director, Chris Sawyer,
With the large demand for certified officials, finding the right combination for each game can be difficult. "There are a lot of factors that need to be considered when assigning a referee to a certain contest, such as mileage, experience and how recently a referee has worked one of the schools’ games" states Harlow, the assignor for southern Vermont. However, with the dwindling numbers, and lack of new officials joining the ranks, this task has gotten even more difficult. "The average age of our referees is now well over 40" states Harlow, "it is an issue that quite frankly, is a little scary."
In recent years, the Vermont Principles’ Association attempted to provide further financial incentive for individuals to join the ranks of the VSOA. "We approved a pay raise for referees from $50 per game to $75 per game about four years ago" states Bob Johnson, the Associate Director of the VPA. Despite the raise in pay, which also includes a payment of 41 cents per mile driven by the officials to get to the game, the numbers issue continues to persist. "We are having constant discussions about the numbers issue" states Johnson "everyone is trying, but I just don’t know what else can be done."
Despite the need to recruit younger referees, the cards appear to be invariably stacked against an influx of younger officials entering the profession in the coming years, in large part due to the critical comments that they are subjected to early on in their career. "I think the number one reason why young people leave the profession, is that they are shocked at the verbal abuse they become subjected to, even at the sub-varsity level" states Eric Evans, a veteran soccer official and chair of the Physical Education Department at Landmark College. "It’s a significant factor for young officials to consider when they are deciding whether or not its worth it for them to continue on"
Although retaining young referees as a whole has become difficult, retaining women referees has been an even more difficult task. A review of the VSOA active officials’ directory revealed that there are only nine women who are listed as active soccer officials in the State, which may be in danger of diminishing further. "Each year I have at least one game situation where I ask myself why I am still doing this job", states Jess Christian, a 15 year soccer official from central Vermont. "It feels that being the best I can be is no longer good enough for some people."
With recent pay raises and local recruitment efforts failing to produce significant results, those who participate in and follow local Vermont soccer may, according to Evans, have to turn their focus towards the atmosphere of the games themselves, if they want to see sustainable improvements in soccer officiating. "I think that the atmosphere, especially at the sub-varsity level, needs to be a lot more supportive of the referees who are just starting out," states Evans. "I think that if people gave them some more slack, they may be more inclined to stay on longer and continue to improve."