Interview with Randy Winn on the Referee Shortage in Idaho

Veteran official Randy Winn shared some thoughts with the Idaho Youth Sports Commission about his career as a basketball official in Idaho and the challenges facing schools and youth sports organizations due to the current referee shortage in Idaho.

About Randy: Winn has been refereeing basketball at the high school and collegiate level since 1992. He was a successful business owner for many years before becoming the Athletic Director at Burley High School three years ago. Randy and his wife reside in Burley.

How did you get started officiating?

I began refereeing intramural basketball at the University of Utah to make money. A high school referee in Salt Lake City suggested I referee high school basketball. I remember calling the referee hotline every Sunday night and trying to grab all the turnbacks that came in for that week. I took as many as I could get.

Why do you officiate?

100% of the reason I do this is because of the people I meet, and the places I go. I have made some great friendships with coaches and fellow officials over the years. I’ve been to a lot of places, from Hawaii to Fairbanks, Alaska. I have been able to work NBA camps for the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns.

Only a few people understand this but once it gets in your blood, it’s 100% addictive, kind of like coaching for many people. When you go out as a crew and work a game and you know you’ve done a great job calling the game there’s no greater feeling. On the other hand, when you go to a game and you’ve made some lousy calls, it feels terrible.

For me, it can often be an escape, and that sounds strange to go out and do something where there’s a good chance you’re going to get yelled at. But when you’ve been doing it for a while, it is truly a time you can take away all the distractions from the day and be involved in the moment.

Hopefully, at the end of the game, I have done my best to help make the youth sports experience for kids a positive one.

What are the challenges facing today’s officials?

We have a dwindling number of referees in every sport. At the collegiate level, there are people lined up at the door to officiate. In youth sports, we are begging people to officiate. In fact, at the youth level, two out of three people who take up officiating are done after two years. I can tell you with 100% certainty that the reason is that the fans and parents can’t keep their mouths shut. For young officials getting started, it’s like throwing them into the lion’s den. They just don’t want to do it anymore, and say “I can go do something else and not take the verbal abuse.” So we work hard and spend a lot of time in the offseason recruiting referees.

It takes time and repetitions for a young official to get to the place where they gain confidence and get comfortable with the job, but the verbal abuse makes it difficult to hang in there and keep going.

If we can get these guys past the first few years, we have a better chance of retaining them and developing better officials, which is a win for everyone.

Has sportsmanship gotten worse over the years?

Without a shadow of a doubt, yes. You know it used to be that there were just three TV channels out there to watch basketball games. Now it seems there is almost limitless availability to watch college and pro basketball games across the country. People observe bad behavior, bad sportsmanship, and bring them into the youth gymnasiums and fields.

How can we make the situation better?

I am on the sportsmanship committee with the Idaho High School Activities Association and we added a new rule that states if a fan gets thrown out of a game, they must sit out two games before they can return. At Jerome High School, the PA announcer now reads a statement that thanks the officials for the job they do to make it a good sports experience for kids. There have been some standing ovations. We want that to spread to every school in the state.

As an Athletic Director, we have 18 sports and I attend every parent meeting to relay the importance of sportsmanship. I tell the parents to be grateful we have officials which allows their kid to play the game.

I have started to implement a little different system where I schedule a veteran official with a younger official to work together at the sub-varsity levels to keep the parents off the younger official. You can’t put two new people together because they will get run right off.

We just recently waived certification fees for first and second-year officials to help with the financial roadblock. It’s not cheap to get started having to purchase shoes, clothing, and fees.

What would Randy Winn say to a young Randy who wants to start officiating?

I would tell him that there is no other occupation where you get to meet a lot of people and see a lot of different places. To be part of helping make a great sports experience for kids is something that you remember the rest of your life. In the first few years it’ll be a little bit rough, but don’t let people run you off. Get some reps, learn the rules inside and out, gain some confidence, and it’s the greatest thing you’ll do. I mean that.