A 20 percent drop in Minnesota State High School League officials' applications in 2020 is once again being felt ahead of the 2021 fall sports season.
The state high school league, which officially kicked off its fall sports season on Monday, is working to cultivate and retain new officials. A task that comes with a variety of challenges.
"We were down 20 percent because of the pandemic and other factors last year," said MSHSL Communications Coordinator Tim Leighton. "Going into this school year, numbers are right around where they were at this time last year."
Leighton, who completed his 31st year of officiating this past season, says the pandemic, combined with jobs and family situations, can be to partly to blame for the drop. However, he says poor sportsmanship has been plaguing the league for quite some time.
"The biggest overriding example we are seeing in the last decade or so is sportsmanship issues involving fans and players," Leighton said. "Newer officials are deciding that it just isn't worth it anymore"
Poor sportsmanship has made retaining officials a challenge.
"We have seen trends that year three is the critical one. That's when a new official will decide to leave, or stay."
Leighton adds that many officials waited to see how the league handled the COVID-19 pandemic before making a decision to participate last fall.
"Many officials waited to register and wanted to see what the mask mandate would be," he said. "Many officials were not comfortable wearing a mask."
For Leighton, masking-up was a non-issue.
"I felt really great wearing a mask because it ensured that those games would be able to be put on in a safe environment," said Leighton. "I am still in pretty good shape, so there wasn't an issue with wearing a mask. It was also a sign of unity. The coaches and players wore them, so with official wearing them, it was a sign of unity that we were all in this challenge together."
With the fall sports season headed for a more traditional look when compared to 2020, Leighton believes there is no better time for someone to look into becoming an official.
"There is optimism and renewed sense of enthusiasm returning to a more traditional look," he said. "Now, there's a sense that things are returning to a more typical format, but we still need to be aware of the guidance and mandates that could be forthcoming."
For anyone nervous about taking that first step towards becoming an official, Leighton says that they won't have to do it alone.
"The Minnesota State High School League and the local officials associations, we are there," Leighton said. "I was fortunate more than three decades ago to have some veterans officials take me under their wing and show me the way. Now it's our turn. As veteran officials, we give back."