FORT DODGE, Ia. — Inmates at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility have a nickname for correctional officer Jim Bice.
They know that, outside the prison walls, Bice is an Iowa high school basketball official. He watches the inmates’ pick-up basketball games in the prison yard, and he says they often ask him for help on foul calls.
Some, though, already know the rules pretty well.
"They have a lot of potential," Bice said.
So much, in fact, that Bice has started recruiting inmates to become high school basketball officials when they exit prison. He’s only talked to a few so far, he said.
"Non-violent offenders who made poor choices in tough environments as young men," Bice, a basketball official since 1991, said of the inmates he's taught.
Bice knows first-hand: They can find work officiating boys and girls basketball in Iowa. Lots of it.
According to Iowa High School Athletic Association data, Iowa had 1,493 registered boys’ basketball officials in 2006-07. Ten years later, in 2016-17, that number had dwindled to 963. And about 45 percent of those still officiating games were 50 or older.
This trend has a significant impact on high school athletics as a whole. Athletic directors don't schedule games unless they've got officials in line.
You do the math: Fewer officials means games could be canceled at the varsity and, especially, sub-varsity levels.
"It seems to get harder (to staff games) every year," said Joel Oswald, a central Iowa official since 1998 and one of the state's main official assignors. "We’re trending in the wrong direction."
This problem isn’t limited to Iowa, either. According to the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations, only two out of every 10 high school officials return for a third year.
"Resources haven’t replenished," said Brett Nanninga, the IHSAA’s associate director in charge of basketball. "You’ve still got that upper-echelon of veterans and older guys that are going out, and not enough young guys are coming in."
If that trend does not change, high school athletics will.
How did this happen?
Dave Suther began officiating in central Iowa in 2000. He quit in 2006 when he got fed up with "awful" treatment, but he returned to officiating when Oswald asked him to come back in 2014. He remembers one 2006 night, in particular, that prompted his eight-year hiatus.
Fans at a varsity game hated one of his calls, he said, and they were letting him hear it. Suther turned to the home school’s athletic director to see if he was trying to control the crowd.
Turns out he was screaming just as loud as the angry fans next to him, Suther said.
"I distinctly remember being at the free-throw line during a timeout going, 'Shoot. We can’t go to the AD. Now what are we going to do? Are we going to have to go to the sheriff?'" he said.
"Then we look over at the sheriff, and the sheriff was talking trash. We’re like: 'We’re screwed.'"
Officials gave several reasons for the shrinking referee population, and they mirror reasons given for the national trend of fewer referees.
- Poor pay — club or AAU basketball offers better money for less travel at weekend tournaments. On average, Iowa high school basketball officials are paid $100 to come ref a game (or two games if there's a boys/girls varsity double-header). Individual schools are responsible for paying officials. Some schools will pay mileage for one car if the crew has to drive more than 30 miles.
- More demands and time constraints placed on the young people who used to register, such as busier high school and college schedules. (High-school students are eligible to officiate middle-school games.)
- Lifestyle and economic changes for older officials who cannot leave early from work multiple times a week anymore.
But, beyond everything else, Iowa officials said poor treatment has caused the most turnover. Conduct by fans, players, coaches. Or in Suther's case, even law enforcement.
Suther said the attitude toward refs didn't change over his eight-year break.
"They expect us to go out there for $100 for a night of games and basically be berated, and then expect us to be OK," he said. "And it’s not OK.
"If I’ve got to throw a couple truth grenades, so be it. I’m prepared to take that consequence."
Some officials the Register talked to said crowd animosity is worst at the sub-varsity levels. It’s no surprise, then, that four Iowa athletic directors told the Register they struggle most to find officials for those contests.
One of them, Harlan's Mitch Osborn, said he’s resorted to asking local business owners and community members to register and officiate.
John Mathias, an official in eastern Iowa since 1995, said most referees get their start at sub-varsity levels and can get discouraged right away.
"That’s where we see, I think, the most vitriol from parents and fans in the stands," he said. "You really shut some folks down before they truly get started."
Tom Wilson, the athletic director at Louisa-Muscatine, said he used to be able to schedule games first and worry about getting officials later. Not anymore.
Most officials get scheduled about a year in advance, West Branch activities director Jacob Stenberg said.
"Otherwise, there’s just nobody left," he said.
Wilson said he has struggled to consistently find officials for his sub-varsity contests. He's almost had to cancel those games on several occasions before finding officials at the last minute.
"It's a problem," he said. "It's just as plain and simple as that.
"When (officials) walk in, I treat them like kings. They get all the soda they want. I feed them pizza afterward, because I want them to come back."
What is being done?
Efforts to address the official shortage boil down to two areas: recruitment and retention.
In terms of new recruitment ideas, the IHSAA has established its #AddOne campaign. The association is imploring officials and athletic directors to recruit one person to become an official. Even if just 20 percent of those people successfully "add one," it’d make a world of difference, association spokesman Chris Cuellar said.
Lewie Curtis, the IHSAA’s director of officials, said the association has suggested that people recruit on their own for years. But this is the first year they’re pushing a formal campaign. #AddOne was advertised in the state basketball, swimming and wrestling programs.
"The difference is, here in the last couple years, we’re trying to spread that message louder," Curtis said.
AN OFFICIAL'S STORY:One referee shares his experiences at high schools
The IHSAA also made it easier for out-of-state officials to work Iowa high school games this year. Now, an official from a different state can officiate games in Iowa as long as they are registered in their state and pay $20 to the IHSAA.
Before, out-of-state officials would have to pay the $50 registration fee, pass the IHSAA basketball officiating test and watch a rules interpretation video online in order to officiate high school games in Iowa.
There's no data yet to show whether the loosened requirements have reduced stresses the official shortage has placed on this state's less-populated, corner regions. But that's the goal, Curtis said.
In terms of retention, both the IHSAA and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union are urging officials and official organizations to adopt a mentorship system. They want veteran officials to get paired with younger officials and work with them — teach them, be a sounding board for frustrations — throughout the year.
"We tell a lot of our guys: 'You owe it to your profession now,'" Nanninga said. "'Be that guy. Bring one of these young guys up.'"
"It’s not just mentoring on Saturdays over coffee," Cuellar added. "It’s actual, on-the-court experience."
Bice is doing his own small part to address the official shortage with his effort at Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, which is a medium-security prison (the most standard kind in the country).
A former inmate can become a high school official in Iowa. The IHSAA and IGHSAU don’t require background checks to become an official. Only the IGHSAU asks that applicants notify it if they’ve committed a prior felony.
"And then, based on what it is or when it happened or whatever it would be," IGHSAU associate director Gary Ross said, "the decision (whether to accept their application) would be made."
Bice said it’s a "good question" as to whether there would be risk in hiring someone with a criminal past to officiate high school games. He said he would provide guidance to any of his former inmates who want to officiate. None of the inmates he's mentored has gone on to officiate yet.
"They’re not bad kids," he said. "I guess I have a lot of confidence in people."
The IHSAA and IGHSAU are also ramping up their evaluation efforts — getting more eyes out there than ever before — in order to watch officials and help them improve. Their idea behind this? Better officials will enjoy officiating more, and thus, stick with it.
"Try to help them become better to motivate them," Ross explained.
What more can be done?
A lot, said basically everyone the Register spoke with. Among them:
Some officials say school administrators need to enforce zero-tolerance policies and eject problem-causing fans. Nanninga agrees. The IHSAA can’t control that, he said; that’s up to the school's administrators.
"You start bootin’ some people, heads turn," Nanninga said. "They notice. They don’t want to be that guy that gets kicked out of the gym."
Keota athletic director Rod Hill wants that zero-tolerance policy directed toward coaches, too. He doesn’t like that coaches are allowed to stand up and berate officials to their face, he said. He wants coaches kept on the bench.
"I’d like to see the basketball coaches get their behinds on the bench and worry about their players and quit trying to be an official," he said. "If you want to quote me on that, I would take that quote a hundred times over."
Curtis started new officials mentoring clinics for wrestling this fall. He said about 25 new officials attended — half in Cedar Rapids, half in Des Moines. Each was paired with a veteran official and put through a 3-hour experience of classroom work, on-the-mat practice and a Q-and-A session with varsity wrestling coaches.
Curtis wants to see the wrestling clinics prove successful a couple more times before trying it with different sports. Baseball would likely be next, he said, possibly followed by basketball down the road.
"We want to encourage people to do camps, rather than treat them like afterthoughts," he said.
Chuck Brittain, the IGHSAU’s basketball officials liaison, wants to tap into the high schools and colleges to draw more officials for sub-varsity levels. He also said he’d like to see officiating classes established at colleges and high schools, perhaps with course credit offered for officiating games.
West Des Moines Valley already offers an officiating class during its 45-minute "Encore" period every Tuesday. Activities director Brad Rose said several high school students from that program have gone on to officiate youth-level games.
He said the class does not involve kids registering with the IHSAA and IGHSAU yet. Only one official of the three-person crew needs to be registered at middle-school games, though, so his students have also officiated those.
Rose thinks it’s a good idea for coaches to try officiating. Just one season, he said.
While coaching baseball at Ottumwa from 1995-2003, Rose would officiate youth basketball on the side. He quickly understood how difficult the job is.
"After one season, I had a whole different perspective," he said. "There are two sides to every story, and if you only understand one side, that’s a weakness."
He thinks relations would improve if more coaches knew firsthand what it was like to be an official.
Both the IHSAA and IGHSAU also said they need to do a better job publicizing how easy it is to become an official — and how young you can be to start.
To register to be an IHSAA official, you have to:
- Be a high school student or older (again, high school students can only officiate middle-school games)
- Score 75 percent or higher on tests for the sport(s) you want to officiate
- View an online rules interpretation meeting for the sport or sports you will officiate
- If you’re not a student, pay $50 for one sport and $12 for additional sports; if you’re a full-time high school or college student, pay $20 for one sport and $12 for additional sports
To register to be an IGHSAU official, all rules and requirements are the same, except it costs adults $45 to register for one sport.
Currently, officials have to register with — and pay — both the IHSAA and IGHSAU if they want to officiate boys’ and girls’ games. Both organizations said they hope to unify their registration process and make it easier for more people to officiate more games.
"It really is just getting people who are already involved with high school activities, or might want to become involved with them, to consider it as an option," Cuellar said. "And hopefully, we can slowly build numbers. We’re not talking about millions of people here.
"But, at the same time, we need some building blocks."
Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.