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'We need help': Umpire shortage is causing high school programs to cancel games

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The Los Angeles Dodgers had a scout coming to Lebanon on Thursday afternoon to watch right-handed senior pitcher Garrett Harker, a potential draft pick in June’s major league baseball draft with a 95-mph fastball.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, Lebanon athletic director Phil Levine sent out a message that the game against Western Boone was postponed despite the clear skies and 50-degree temperature. The reason for the postponement? Not rain. Not sleet. Not snow.

An umpire shortage.

“I don’t think I really realized how bad (the shortage was) until (Thursday),” Levine said. “We really need to figure out what we’re going to do in the future because it’s a problem. If we have to cancel games, we’re hurting teams and kids.”

It is not an isolated incident. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened an already declining number of qualified umpires. There are more than 1,400 umpires registered with the Indiana High School Athletic Association this season, according to IHSAA assistant commissioner Robert Faulkens. But that number includes many who opted out this season due to the virus, Faulkens said.


This spring, in particular, has been rough due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the pandemic only shined a light an already-emerging issue. The retention rate of younger umpires has not kept pace with the older umpires retiring. According to the IHSAA, the average age of officials across all sports is 56 years old.

The problems are easy enough to identify, starting with poor treatment from fans, parents and coaches. A video from a basketball game at the Pacers Athletic Center went viral earlier month when a fan and referee exchanged punches and the referee was wrestled to the ground. While issues to that level are the exception, the verbal abuse is more constant. A survey conducted last year by the National Association of Sports Officials of more than 17,000 officials showed 47.9% of male officials and 44.7% of female officials have “felt unsafe or feared for their safety because of administrator, coach, player or spectator behavior.”


Greg Wright, 52, has been umpiring since 1998 and consistently at the high school level since 2008. He said his tactic  in dealing with complaints is to take the comments from fans as “comic relief” and not engage in any back and forth. He also understands that coaches have a rooting interest and “are going to fight for their kids.”

“Their job may be on the line if they fail,” Wright said of coaches. “But when younger kids start out and people start yelling at them, whether it is fans or coaches, they don’t know how to deal with somebody right in their face. With fans, you have to have the personality that you find it funny. A lot of them don’t know what they are talking about. But for a younger umpire, once they get that they say, ‘You know what, this isn’t for me.’ Then they get out of it. Most of us doing it are 40-plus and there are quite a few who are 60-plus. We need more people to get involved. Without adult participation, the kids don’t play. The word needs to get out because it is a critical issue in our sport.”

Umpires typically make $65 for a high school game. Not exactly big bucks once you factor in equipment costs and gas money. Wright estimates he has about $1,000 invested in equipment with different gear needed for various levels of games from little league to college.


Lebanon’s Levine said some schools are paying $15-20 extra per game to make sure they have an umpire locked in for a game. He would like to see a standard maximum amount to keep schools from outbidding one another. Levine, after talking with other athletic directors and baseball coaches, has a few other ideas:

*A time limit of two hours on junior varsity and freshman games or a 10-run rule, whichever comes first.

*Mandatory JV/freshman games are worked only with a home plate umpire until overall numbers of umpires grow.

*Limit the licensing procedure so a new umpire can get a temporary license for a year and work JV/freshman games. If they like it, they can complete  the licensing process to be certified to work varsity games.

The IHSAA has made a push in recent years to get younger and new officials involved in all sports. But Levine and other area athletic directors are concerned that is an issue that may not heal itself after the pandemic unless changes are made.

“I’m afraid it’s going to get worse,” Greenwood’s Irwin said.


I would disagree with the "adult participation" statement.  Maybe getting the "adults out" of the game is a good thing.


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