Illinois has a big problem when it comes to officials in many sports.
Not only is there a shortage, but the average age of officials is climbing and many officials are not renewing their licenses within the first two years.
Many officials throughout the state are in their 50s or older.
Of the 18 sports listed by the IHSA, 15 sports have officials with an average age of 45 or older, while in 14 sports, the largest percentage of officials are in their 50s or 60s.
The IHSA is having trouble keeping officials as well.
Of the 1,045 basketball officials who did not renew their licenses, 672 were in their first two years. There are similar numbers in baseball (526 of 811), softball (283 of 447) and football (212 of 378).
Jim Knauf, a La Salle-Peru graduate, has been officiating football, basketball and baseball for 34 years.
The NewsTribune caught up with Knauf, who has worked three state finals in boys basketball and football, to discuss what it’s like to be an official, the mission of the Illinois Valley Officials Association and the shortage issue in the state.
NewsTribune: What got you into officiating?
Knauf: I’ve always been a sports nut. I was a marginal athlete in high school. I found it was a way to stay close to the sport. I started with baseball and it turned into baseball, basketball and football. It’s a way to stay involved, it’s a cheap way to keep halfway in shape and it’s an opportunity to earn a little money on the side.
NT: What keeps you officiating?
Knauf: Officiating, for me, has been kind of a drug. For some people it’s a vocation, but for those of us who have stayed in it this long, it’s somewhat of an addiction. You get a rush from the competition. You stay young being around kids. You stay active being around buddies who have like ambitions with this. It’s something that gets into your blood. It becomes more than what you do. It’s part of who you are, for sure.
NT: What does it take to be a good official?
Knauf: More than anything else it’s the ability to handle people. There’s no substitute for knowing the rules, knowing mechanics and knowing key situations, but if you’re not able to handle people and handle situations and conflict, it’s not a business for you.
NT: If someone is on the fence about becoming an official, what would you say to convince them?
Knauf: I would tell them it’s a way to stay around the game, it’s a way to make a decent side income, it’s a way to keep your mind active and a way to stay around young people. As much as kids get a bad rap these days, there are a lot of positive young people who are involved in athletics. If you can be a contributor to their success, their advancement and their maturity, that’s a big positive as well.
NT: What is the mission of the Illinois Valley Officials Association?
Knauf: The association has been around in one way, shape or form for close to 45 years. It used to be just a basketball association but now has morphed into football, baseball and basketball. It’s pretty much a year round group. The mission of the organization is to be a place for officials to exchange ideas. It’s for rules study and looking at key situations. We hope it’s a place for people to come, bring some of their issues they’ve had and work through them because with us elder statesmen, there are probably not too many situations we haven’t encountered ourselves or at least seen. People can learn from that.
NT: Why do you think there’s an officials shortage?
Knauf: If I could tell you, I think I’d be able to cure it. There are a number of different reasons. One thing is, as much as I like to say positive things about young people, with today’s late teens and 20-somehtings, there seems to be a sense of instant gratification that if they don’t have a positive experience with things right away, they have a tendancy to want to give up. Really, there’s some stick-to-itiveness that needs to occur to be successful in this business.
In the statistics that the IHSA produces, probably 70 percent of the licenses that aren’t renewed are in the first or second year. We have to figure out a way at the local and state levels to keep new officials and make it a positive experience for them.
People talk about fans being difficult, coaches being difficult, players being difficult and the pay being relatively low, but those are not new problems. Those are things that have been happening ever since there have been sports, so we have to figure out a way to mentor young or inexperienced officials.
One thing we are doing is trying to recruit officials. We have an officiating class that’s going to be starting in the fall at IVCC. Hopefully, that will attract some people.
Kevin Chlum can be reached at 220-6939, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsEditor.