On Special Assignment

Nov 9, 2013 5:57 PM by Laura Wilson - KAJ News

Referee shortages impacting Flathead sports

KALISPELL - There's no questions refereeing is a tough - and sometimes even a thankless job.

But for the pool of Montana High School Association referees in Flathead County, their greatest challenge comes from off the field.

Laura Wilson went on Special Assignment to find out what this could mean for the future of high school football in Northwest Montana.

"When you step on the field, the crowd expects you to be perfect, and get better," commented Warren Dobler, who's been a referee for 26 years.

"My favorite thing about my job is that it's something you can give back to the game of football. Everyone asks, 'how do you stand there with the coaches all over you?' Really, we don't see that much anymore. I think coaches realize that without us, the game will not be played," observed Jim Magness - who's refereed for 43 years.

It's a rather simple mentality - without officials, the game will not be played. But in past years, it's become a harsh reality for Flathead County high schools.

"The hardest part of our job right now is recruiting new officials. We used to have 24-26 people n our pool, and now we're down to 17. We're only able to put two full-time five man crews on the field every Friday night. This year, we've had to ask all the schools to either change to a Thursday or Saturday game," Magness told us.

Several times this season there have been more football games on Friday night in the Flathead Valley - and local high schools end up paying the price for it.

"We had to bring in officials one time this year from Missoula to cover contests because the officials in the Valley couldn't. I know Flathead had to do the same thing as well as Columbia Falls and Bigfork. You have to pay mileage for those officials to come, at the federal rate. It becomes a significant cost to the schools and impacts budgets, that's for sure," Glacier High School Athletic Director Mark Dennehey explained.

Officials are feeling the physical impacts of the shortage as well.

"In our pool, we have an official timeout, an injury timeout - and a social security timeout," Magness quipped.

The referee shortage comes at a time when a handful of the Flathead pool's older officials are getting ready to throw in the towel.

"We picked up three new officials this year, and they're all going to do really well. But there's a number of us on the wrong side of the age curve that can't continue much longer," Magness said. "I see a time when football games in the Flathead Valley will be played when the five officials who are left can work. It's not funny, it's a realistic thing."

Officials and coaches alike say it's time for a younger generation to step up and start calling the shots on the football pitch.

"There's an awful lot of young men who have gone through and played varsity football in the Valley. I would just like to encourage anyone who is out there who wants to get involved in Friday night football. What's better than that? Being on the field and being a part of it - we need you," Bigfork football coach Todd Emslie said.

The football referee pool may be dwindling, but its long-time officials have held strong to their love of the game.

"As long as I realize there's a shortage for the high schools, I'm going to do what I can to make sure those games are covered each week. At some point - when I was playing - somebody made that sacrifice as well," Dobler concluded.

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