Can taking on a role that results in almost constant public pressure and even verbal attacks be a positive life-changing experience?
Jeff Cluff, director of officiating for the Utah High School Activities Association, has no doubt that can be the case because he experienced it himself.
“It’s the greatest decision I ever made next to getting married,” Cluff said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It totally changed my life for the good. That’s what I tell people. If you would’ve asked me in 2001 when I started refereeing high school basketball as a side gig if 19 years later I would be the director of officiating, I would’ve told you you were absolutely crazy. But the friends and that have come from it reminds me every single day of that decision I made back then every single day and how great it was.”
In his career, Cluff has officiated college softball, college baseball, high school basketball and high school football.
“The officiating world becomes part of you and it’s a great profession,” Cluff said. “It’s a great way to make extra cash and be part of something. The best part is staying engaged.”
There is no doubt that officials have a tough job.
On the surface, the task of organizing play and enforcing the rules of a game may sound pretty straightforward but when you start getting into interpretations and passion, it gets pretty complicated.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.
“You have to sacrifice a lot but I tell people how great it is to give back to the kids and be part of the game,” Cluff said.
Attrition factors like health, age, occupational disruption, family impact and stress means the UHSAA is always looking to recruit new people to take on the challenge of officiating.
Cluff explained that the turnover rate can make it tough for referees to have settled in and really grasped what it takes to be successful.
“I think our biggest problem is lack of experience right now,” Cluff said. “There have been more high schools built, which means you have more teams and more games. Officials are pulled in all these different directions, so for a long time there was less focus on training and more on just having people to work the games. Now we are really trying to focus across the board is on training referees better.”
For example, Cluff has been doing baseball trainings on Zoom this year and said he has 35 to 70 people participating on a weekly basis.
But it takes time from when a person first starts officiating until they are ready to referee varsity-level high school games, sometimes up to five or six years, according to Cluff.
He explained that the experience and the training helps referees tone out the inevitable criticism that comes with the job.
“It doesn’t affect you,” Cluff said. “You understand that fans are fans and often don’t understand all the rules. As you become more experienced, it bothers you less.”
For the games to be played at all, there have to be enough individuals who are willing to take on the challenges for the games and Cluff said the most effective recruitment tool is other officials.
“The No. 1 tool for recruitment is word of mouth from an existing official,” Cluff said. “I’m also always trying to recruit within the officiating ranks, getting football officials to work baseball or baseball umpires to work basketball. We are fortunate that we haven’t had to cancel a whole bunch of games in Utah.”
The association has worked to create a growth atmosphere at the sub-varsity level in high school sports where the focus for players and coaches is improvement over achievement. That’s why its a great place for referees to start learning their craft as well.
“We only hold championships at the varsity level,” Cluff said. “Parents and coaches need to approach it with the mindset that the officials are there learning just like their kids are learning. If they don’t, that’s where we often have sportsmanship issues and because of that we have more turnover.”
The fall sports season in 2020 adds another layer of challenges to Cluff and the association as the state, school districts and athletic programs grapple with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even with the uncertainty, Cluff said the current approach is to prepare as if it will be a normal season.
“Our registration period for fall ends on July 1,” Cluff said. “We’re going to do registrations as we normally have moving forward but the discussions are daily as to whether we are playing in fall or not.”
He invites anyone who is interested in becoming a high school referee to go to http://highschoolofficials.com to get started.