DOVER — There’s a lot of truth to the idea that football fans only notice a referee when the official makes a call they don’t like.
And it’s clearly true that football games can’t be played without refs.
But a critical shortage of referees in the state right now is going to begin impacting the high school football schedule.
The Delmarva Football Officials Association has asked downstate schools not to schedule more than five football games at any one time. That’s a big issue in the Henlopen Conference, where the majority of its games are played at 7 p.m. on Friday nights.
Downstate athletic directors met last week, with each school agreeing to move two games out of the Friday evening time slot.
That’s why, this Thursday, Milford High will host Lake Forest at 6:30 p.m. in their annual “Battle of the Bell” rivalry game with Sussex Tech hosting Caravel at 7:30 p.m.
Next Thursday, Smyrna will host Caesar Rodney at 7 p.m. while the Dover-CR rivalry game will be played on Saturday, Oct. 2, at 11 a.m.
“I don’t think people really understand how bad it is right now,” said Caesar Rodney athletic director Bob Beron. “We’re in a bad position right now when it comes to officials. We are in desperate need of people who are willing to help officiate.
“People need to understand that this is where we’re at right now. If people don’t step up to help, it could get even worse.”
Dean Culver, president of the DFOA, said the group has only 43 members right now when it used to have about 80. He said the Northern Delaware association has about half the membership it used to have, too.
Culver said younger people just don’t want to be refs right now.
“I’m 51 years old and still considered one of the young guys,” he said. “We’re at a very critical point, we really are. There have not been many that have joined us and stuck around over the past 20 years.”
The situation is further complicated by the fact that there is also a critical shortage of school bus drivers in the state at the moment.
“We’re working together with them (the officials) to try to do whatever we can to get games played,” said Smyrna athletic director Bill Schultz. “I think it’s going to be a work in progress all year just to accommodate the officials, transportation and things like that.
“The sub-varsity level is just as impacted,” he added. “Friday night (games) are the ones that get all the attention but the JV kids and the freshman kids that play later in the week — and middle school — are going to be effected as well.”
Not all the schedule changes have been posted in schools’ online schedules yet.
Beron said the ADs have tried to keep each schools’ homecoming game on a Friday night if that’s when it was originally scheduled.
School officials are trying to come up with different solutions. For instance, if one referee was taken from each seven-person crew, that could create one more crew for each night.
Some referees in the state will now be working an afternoon game and then one at night. Some junior varsity contests are using three officials instead of four.
Culver said the Delmarva association is trying to brainstorm new ways to recruit officials. He said they might even consider looking at college students or high school seniors as potential candidates.
A referee needs to be 18.
“We’ve never had to move games before,” said Colver. “It’s not one of those things that looks like it’s just going to resolve itself and go away. This has become critical. We had seven people contact us this year about coming out and we had one of those seven actually come out.”
“A lot of the officials that we have left are veterans,” said Beron. “They’ve been doing it for a really, really long time.
“When these guys decide to retire, or they can’t do it any more, that’s going to make life even worse if we don’t have young guys that fill in and want to be eager to officiate.”
The bus-driver shortage is causing problems for weekday afternoon competitions.
With the majority of fall sports played at the end of the school day, there aren’t enough drivers to transport teams to games and get students home from school at the same time.
Athletic directors have tried to be creative there as well. Beron said CR has partnered sometimes with Polytech, when possible, so that a bus can transport a Polytech team to CR for a game and then bring back a CR team in a different sport to Polytech.
The main changes to schedules right now are to starting times and days of the week. While it’s not preferable, it’s also not unusual for football teams to play on Thursday.
“We’re trying to be flexible,” said Schultz. “The only tough one would be maybe if you’re playing a Saturday (game) and then turning around and playing on Thursday.”
“We have group texts that we pretty much talk to each other every day,” Beron said about the ADs. “It ranges from, ‘Hey, what are you doing for practice because of humidity?’ to ‘Does anybody have an extra bus that they can lend us?’
“We’re all looking out for each other. Granted, we are looking out for our own individual schools. But if we just look out for ourselves, another team might not be showing up to our school.”
Culver said the officials like having football games played on Friday nights just like everyone else.
“There’s nothing like Friday night lights,” said the Laurel resident. “Thursdays and Fridays, we can do that. But there’s something special about Friday nights and high school football.”