LOS GATOS – Crouched in a low stance, Brian Blassingame waited for a signal from his superior before he started moving across the Los Gatos High football field. Some 25 yards away, his teammate stalked the sidelines and shuffled off the line of scrimmage after the snap.
Once the run went for minimal yardage, Blassingame and others lined up for another rep, and then another, and then another – all under the hot sun.
This isn’t just a practice for Los Gatos’ players.
It’s also a training session for the men and women who officiate the games; men and women who are becoming increasingly difficult to find.
As more and more game officials across California and beyond walk away from the job because of verbal and occasional physical abuse from fans and coaches, late-night hours and low pay, high school sports administrators are being forced to change schedules to work around the lack of referees.
It’s no longer just Friday Night Lights for high school football teams. Many schools have to play games on Thursday or Saturday to compensate for the referee shortage.
“A short week messes with teams,” Wilcox coach Paul Rosa said. “When you have to play on a Saturday, and then turn around and play on a Thursday, it breaks up the rhythm of the week.”
Blassingame and Dan Peterson are friends who love football, but their playing days are long behind them. They now give back to the sport as officials, which means their work begins days before kickoff.
In this case, it started at 3:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, where Blassingame and a few other relative newcomers worked on the finer points of the craft under the watchful eyes of longtime officials Tom Gersey and Rick Moore.
“Stay, stay, stay…now shuffle, shuffle shuffle,” Moore shouted from the sideline, while Gersey added, “We have to stay in touch with each other! Hand up high in the air…now shuffle, shuffle!”
Longtime referee Tom Gersey instructs Tyson Rafferty during a high school football referee training session led by Rick Moore, of Bay Area Sports Officials, (BASO) at Los Gatos High School on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Unlike game nights, referee practice unfolded in a serene environment. Aside from the sound of whistles and instructions, the only noise was the crunching of pads and the heavy grunts of practicing Los Gatos players.
It’s a far cry from what these officials will face on game day.
If it were like this all the time, there might not be a referee crisis. But it’s not like this all the time. Of the 12 rookie officials who started in 2022, Gersey predicts 80 percent will leave the job by 2025.
The chief cause of the exodus? Abuse from coaches and spectators, officials say.
“You get someone who thinks they’re just going to be doing the game, but then they deal with all the extracurricular stuff with fans yelling at you from the sidelines,” said Blassingame, who also is a longtime baseball umpire. “It gets to the point where you ask, ‘Why am I doing this?’ You just want to focus on the game, but now you have parents screaming at you for whatever reason.”
Mark Contreras, who is new to the job, spent a portion of the referee training session as a linesman, where Los Gatos’ receivers cycled through his sideline.
Without fail, each player looked at Contreras to see if they had lined up properly. With encouragement from his officiating peers, Contreras let each player know if they were OK.
Being able to communicate effectively with players and coaches is an essential skill, several officials noted.
“If you don’t have a good rapport with the coach, it’s going to be a long night,” Gersey told one of the newer officials
Added Moore, “You can’t be shy.”
Being open and honest with coaches is another skill new officials are taught.
Los Gatos football coach Mark Krail. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Rosa and Los Gatos’ Mark Krail were two coaches highlighted by veteran officials as men who treat referees with respect and who ensure their teams acted in kind. Teams often take on the character of the coaches who lead them, officials said.
“Those guys are working, they’re trying hard,” Krail said. “You have to respect how they’re out here every week and working on their craft.”
After the officials finished the drills on the field, they drove to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Given that they had arrived at the field from their day jobs, most hadn’t eaten. There are no full-time referees in high school sports, and those who work football games generally make less than $100 per game.
Pay is another issue behind the referee shortage. Given the rise in gas prices and the cost of equipment – uniforms, whistles, etc. – it’s tough to break even.
And who wants to just break even given that most decisions the officials make on the field are second-guessed in a confrontational manner?
In the Central Coast Section, the high school governing body that oversees schools from San Francisco to King City, commissioner Dave Grissom said his section has created a committee to discuss better benefits for the refs.
“We’re going to have an ad hoc committee designed to look at compensation for officials, mileage fees, and those sorts of things,” Grissom said. “We’re going to see what we can do as a section to support our officials.”
Practice isn’t easy for officials. Obsessing over the correct number of steps, standing in a certain position and other minute details are all part of the process. One incorrect motion is quickly chastised by supervisors who know that such a blunder could lead to a missed call in a real game.
“Put yourself in the position to make the right call,” Moore said. “It might seem simple, but it’s so important.”
Rick Moore, of Bay Area Sports Officials, (BASO) live streams a high school football referee training session at Los Gatos High School on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
In between bites at dinner, the men traded discussion on various game scenarios, down to the most obscure.
Where should one stand on the unusual formation called the “swinging gate” play? In that alignment, eight to nine offensive players line up on one side of the field, leaving the center, quarterback and possibly a running back isolated in the middle.
Mental preparation is just part of the job requirement.
There is also a physical toll.
“I’m icing at 11 p.m. after the game,” longtime referee Phil Beltran said.
When the officials finished dinner, they drove back to Los Gatos High, where some 30 men equipped with pens and notebooks crammed into seats behind long tables. They would spend about two hours in a classroom, lectured by numerous supervisors, who went through one power-point slide after another.
Participants take part in a high school football referee training session led by Rick Moore, of Bay Area Sports Officials, (BASO) and longtime referee Tom Gersey at Los Gatos High School. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
The “swinging gate” play and overtime rules were emphasized by Mike Gasvoda, a referee of 30 years. Teaching was frequently interrupted by peers asking questions and requesting clarification. During the film review section, the officials debated the merits of different unsportsmanlike conduct and taunting penalties.
“We don’t want you taunting an opponent and inciting an event,” one speaker said, while another countered, “We also want to do everything we can to keep kids in the game. Let’s not be in a hurry to throw flags for unsportsmanlike conduct. Let’s talk to kids first.”
Education chairman Jarrod Middleton ended the classroom session by going through a new referee’s journey to becoming a confident official.
He said that officials should always be trying to improve and that it generally takes eight years to become comfortable in the job.
Over those eight years, lumps will be taken, calls will be made and missed, schedules will be altered, and a fledgling official will go from a newcomer to a hardened veteran.
As Gersey said, that doesn’t just happen without some sacrifices and help from the group.
“This is a commitment,” he added. “But we also say this is our fall family. It’s a commitment, but you’re not alone.”