Got Ref?

Don O’Neal has a theory about the unexpected twist that led him to become a football official.

For years O’Neal was on the other side of the game, coaching youth sports as his children progressed through the ranks. Barking at officials was common for O’Neal. But nearly six years ago when a friend of O’Neal’s invited him to try officiating, O’Neal quickly learned how difficult the job is.

Since then he’s been making up for all the times he hounded officials.

“I’ve always said (becoming a football official) is my penance for yelling at officials when I coached,” O’Neal said before laughing.

In his sixth season working for the Snohomish County Football Officials Association, O’Neal, a 52-year-old stockbroker, has witnessed plenty of change in his part-time pursuit. The number of officials in the association has decreased while the demand for their services has rapidly grown. It’s created a troubling situation that has left the SCFOA scrambling to recruit members and plug gaping holes. Sometimes they fail and games are postponed or canceled.

Jeff Mattson, president of the SCFOA, is also a sixth-year official. When he started, the association had at least 80 officials, he said. Now it is down to 64 — 57 after subtracting officials on a leave of absence because of job conflicts or injuries.

“It’s just slowly been going down,” Mattson said.

The SCFOA tries to work games at all levels, from little league to high school varsity. But last year the association was forced to stop supporting two local little leagues that it had worked with for many years. With more and more high schools opening and youth football participation surging, something had to go.

On the county’s football food chain, youth leagues were the bottom rung.

“It’s hard to do that. We didn’t want to,” Mattson said. “The reason we (officiate) is to give back to the kids.”

This fall’s cancellations have hit many high schools, with freshman, sophomore and junior-varsity games being canceled or rescheduled.

If the pattern continues, the SCFOA might have to completely quit working seventh- and eight-grade games and devote its dwindling resources to high school competition, said SCFOA assignor Mike Johnson, who became an official in 1971.

Why is the number of football officials slipping? It’s certainly not a problem exclusive to the gridiron — basketball statewide has had similar problems in recent years, said Washington Officials Association commissioner Todd Stordahl.

But several factors, some of the same ones that hinder basketball, seem to work against the SCFOA’s attempts to attract new officials. One ongoing issue, Mattson said, is that modest compensation — $52 for a varsity game and about 48.5 cents per mile driven — is far outweighed by time demands and a desire to see family more often.

Most officials have full-time day jobs and decide that the commitment is too much, Mattson and Johnson said. On a recent Monday, Mattson got off work and immediately went to officiate two games. He got home at 10:30 p.m.

O’Neal, the coach-turned-official, worked 75 games his first year, including as many as five on Saturdays.

Another increasingly powerful factor, according to SCFOA members, is the harsh treatment of officials by players’ parents, especially at the lowest youth levels. Parents are much closer to the field at those contests and consistently tear into officials, most of them inexperienced recruits who are still learning a dense rulebook, Mattson said.

“New guys ask, ‘Is there anything you can do about the parents?’” said Johnson, who added that parents have gotten much worse the past few years.

“Some (parents) just seem to lose focus about why we’re really out there. Some of (them) think it’s the Super Bowl,” Mattson said.

Solutions are not obvious. The SCFOA works with leagues to make sure parents are kept under control. Attempts have been made to recruit high school — and college-age student-athletes to try officiating.

One encouraging possibility is a new officiating class offered by Lake Stevens High School. Organized by Lake Stevens wrestling coach Brent Barnes, the class uses a combination of classroom education and live observation.

For now, when the SCFOA doesn’t have enough officials to fill gaps it gets help from the King County and Whatcom County associations. But those groups are dealing with many of the same issues, Johnson said.

In the worst-case scenario players’ parents might end up stepping in to officiate youth and middle school games.

Then again, that might not be so bad, Johnson said.

“I hope it does (come to that),” he said. “One, they’re gonna understand the commitment both of time and (learning) rules. And then they’re going to (think), ‘Why was I yelling at that guy?’”

Despite all the problems, SCFOA members said officiating football is still absolutely worth it. The key for them is to convince potential officials, especially those in their late teens and early twenties.

O’Neal, the former coach who used to frequently berate officials, never forgets the reason he continues to love officiating football.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is it is really fun. It’s supposed to be fun for the kids and fun for officials.”

Contact Herald Writer Mike Cane at For more high school sports news, check out the prep sports blog Double Team at

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