ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – Jeff Schwarz is celebrating his golden anniversary as an official this year. He not only calls games, but works as an assigner, responsible for scheduling referees for 33 high schools. 

“It’s a busy job, particularly this time of year,” Schwarz said.

That busy task has only gotten more difficult as officials leave the profession at an alarming rate. According to the Illinois High School Association, the net total of licensed officials has declined by nearly 4,000 over the last decade.

“In parts of our state, it’s in a real troubling state to be honest, lacking officials in terms of numbers in quite a few different sports,” said Craig Anderson, IHSA executive director.

Many older officials left during Covid-19 and the ones who stayed are overworked.

“People that are usually doing one game are now doing two. On weekends sometimes two, three, four games,” Schwarz said.

But the biggest culprit keeping officials off the court and field is verbal abuse from fans, coaches or players.

“I’ve been called all kinds of names, I’ve been walked to my car, I’ve been threatened,” Schwarz said.

“Some of it’s comical: You’re missing a good game out there ref, your phone’s ringing you’re missing calls,” said veteran IHSA official Ken Pink. “I enjoy that stuff. When it gets personal, it takes on a whole new meaning.”

“I think the hard part at youth games is the aspect of being yelled at by coaches and fans,” said 26-year-old official Ernest Kiseliovas. “People get put out there and realize I don’t want to do that anymore.”

“We need to do a better job of making administrators aware of these circumstances and have everything in place to prevent those things from happening,” Anderson said.

Keneitha Shoulder knows harassment from fans is the “elephant in the room” for recruiting new officials, but she’s made it her mission the last decade to find and foster the next generation of referees as president and founder of Basketball Officials Academy of Chicago.

“Well, I’m very hopeful,” Shoulder said about the future of officiating. “We are over 500 members strong.”

By setting up outreach tables at games and speaking to students at schools, she’s been able to keep the pipeline of new officials flowing.

“The number one key is the money, a summer job,” Shoulder said. “I can speak to them about going away for college and getting involved in intramural sports being an official, that’s something extra you can bring to them.”

One of her success stories is 25-year-old Charles Smith.

“I was playing high school basketball my first two years at Curie [high school], and I thought the officiating was OK, but I thought I could’ve done a better job, so I wanted to make a difference and do a better job,” Smith said.

Ten years later, he’s officiating the Public League Final Four—with dreams of making it to the NBA.

“It’s an overwhelming feeling to see someone like Charles who started at the age of 15, just a kid who wanted to be an official, and just to see him now even in his career as a corrections officer, it’s an amazing feeling,” Shoulder said.

The IHSA recently approved new initiatives like waiving licensing fees for graduating seniors and veterans, hoping to incentivize more young people like Charles Smith to pick up a whistle.

His advice for anyone thinking about putting on the stripes?

“If you’re a new official and want to get into officiating, Keneitha Shoulder is the person to meet and know.”