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Fewer Refs Could Dim 'Friday Night Lights' In Rural Texas

Martin do Nascimento for KUT
Jason Herring, head coach of the Refugio Bobcats, argues with a referee during a game in Ganado on Oct. 17, 2017.

A lack of referees may make Thursday – and even Saturday – games a regular occurrence – in a state known for "Friday Night Lights."

The gap in refs may be attributable to a seemingly mythical prospect in Texas: There's too much football, so high schools share stadium space.

Wayne Elliott with the Austin Football Officials Association (AFOA) assigns referees for Austin area games. He says that shortage isn't exactly a problem here, but generally speaking, points west of I-35 are struggling to find enough refs.

"You can be a rookie out in West Texas, go to a meeting and work varsity football," said Elliott. "We have enough [in Austin] where they don’t work at the varsity level until about the third year. If they do sooner, it’s six-man [football]."

More rural schools have had to rely on refs, umps and judges from the state’s bigger metros, and Elliot says other chapters have asked for assistance in staffing games.

"We’ve helped them a lot," said Elliott. "Abilene will usually call us. We’ve helped San Angelo before. We’ve helped the Brownwood chapter."

Between the school years that ended in 2017 and 2018, nearly 19 percent of game officials did not return, according to a survey conducted by the Texas Association of Sports Officials (TASO). Multiple factors are at work in the shortage that are beyond anyone’s control, such as work or family obligations, as well as the ever-growing number of high schools across the booming Lone Star State.

However, there are quantifiable reasons for refs' departures, though – namely, verbal abuse. Eighty percent of the refs who left the part-time gig did so because they no longer wanted to get yelled at by parents, students and fans, according to the TASO survey.

Recruiting is another factor.

The job doesn't pay a lot. It’s more on the "love of the game" pay scale, than an actual living wage. Elliott says officials usually make $85 a game, plus mileage.

Last month at a coaches’ conference, the governing body of high school extracurricular activities, the UIL, said it is recruiting to fill the gap. Executive Director Charles Breithaupt said his organization is working on getting a new generation of ex-players interested in the job. There are more officials older than 60 than under 30, according to the Dallas Morning News.

But it's not just a Texas problem. Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and even Oregon have struggled to staff their high school football games, as well.

Jimmy is the assistant program director, but still reports on business and sports every now and then. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @maasdinero.
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