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Shortage of officials leads to modified football schedules

The officiating crew for Friday night’s game between Aberdeen Roncalli and Redfield visit along the sideline as they wait for the game in Redfield to start. Photo by John Davis taken 9/2/2022

Friday night lights has undergone a bit of a transformation the past couple of seasons.

While the majority of high school football games in South Dakota remain on Friday nights, more and more Thursday, Saturday and afternoon games are popping up on schedules across the state.

“It’s because of a lack of officials,” said Jo Auch, assistant executive director with the South Dakota High School Activities Association. “We just don’t have the number of crews to get all of our games in on a Friday night.”

As a result the SDHSAA has recommended that all schools try to schedule at least one football game that does not fall on a Friday night.

Some schools have multiple games this season that are not scheduled for Friday evenings. Aberdeen Central starts its season with three straight Saturday contests. Hitchcock-Tulare has two Friday afternoon games on its schedule. Afternoon games allow for some crews to work multiple games in a single day.

Auch said there are currently 65 football crews in the state, lower than the desired amount. What complicates issues is that sometimes there are conflicts within those crews.

“The problem is some of these crews have ties to the schools or with kids that are playing, so they can’t work a specific night,” Auch said.

Another element has also come back into play.

“We’re struggling with COVID again,” Auch said. “I’ve got a lot of officials out, because they can’t officiate because of their COVID. That’s challenging.”

Auch said that it’s possible that in some rare circumstances there may be a need to cut back on the number of officials who work contests, for instance going from two officials to one in volleyball, five officials to four in football, or three officials to two in basketball.

There are currently 1,560 registered officials for high school athletics, including 250 new officials this year. While that number is promising, it is also a bit deceiving because each year officials retire or decide not to continue.

“We have 250 new officials this year,” Auch said, “but now we have to keep those 250 and then work to try to get another 250 next year.”

While Auch said the numbers have plateaued for the time being, the SDHSAA is always looking for more individuals who are interested in becoming an official.

“We can always use more officials in every sport,” she said.

Hitchcock-Tulare football coach Tom Salmen, center, talks to the officiating crew before Friday afternoon’s game in Hitchcock. The officials said the matinee game was the first of two games the crew members would work that day. Photo by John Davis taken 9/2/2022

Auch said one of the reasons for a decline in officials has been the abuse they are subjected to. That’s why there will be an added emphasis on sportsmanship this year.

“I think we need to really promote a positive effort to bring awareness back to sportsmanship,” Auch said, “treating the officials like they’re your kids. If that was my kid out there on the field, what would I be saying to him? That’s the way we need to treat officials.”

Auch, a former official herself, said that people need to keep in mind that officials are human and there will be mistakes made. That’s just part of the human element in competition.

“Every time there’s a game, I can guarantee you that there’s some situation where these officials make a call that they wish they had back,” Auch said. “They wish they could do it differently, but they’re humans.”

She said while there may be questionable calls from time to time, officials have undergone hours of training and are not out to slight a particular team or coach.

“I think what people have to understand is that nobody is intentionally trying to blackball a team or coach or anything of that nature,” Auch said. “They’re doing the best they can out there.”

Auch encouraged anybody who has an interest in officiating and a desire to give something back to sports to contact the SDHSAA. She said the state can definitely use the extra help.

“We need those people that are willing to help out along the way if a crew gets short of a person or somebody gets COVID, that we have those people in our back pockets that we can turn to,” Auch said. “Right now, that’s the tough part. We have so many contests going on in a given day that there just aren’t enough officials to fill.”

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