'Do we need officials? We certainly do': How Texas Association of Sports Officials is coping with COVID-19

Russell Wilburn

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The 2020 Texas high school football season is officially underway, at least at the 1A through 4A levels, which means the statewide juggling act of staffing games has commenced for the Texas Association of Sports Officials.

Like everything else in life, COVID-19 has taken its toll on TASO, one of the largest professional organizations for sports officials in the country.

“We are about 1,000 members behind where we were last year,” said Bill Theodore, TASO’s Assistant Executive Director. “We have over 4,900 [football officials]. In a typical season we have about 5,800.”

Theodore didn’t feel the need to sound the alarm just yet, but did mention that without an increase in numbers there could be a need for altered schedules at the sub-varsity level.

“As of right this minute, we don’t think we’re going to experience a problem covering varsity games statewide,” he said. “But it might be an issue with sub-varsity and junior high because there are more games. Until we get started, we’re really not sure where it’s going to be.

“We’ve been working with the UIL and with the schools about rescheduling if we can’t cover them on a certain day. There may be some schools that won’t even have a junior high season because of COVID. Until we get into Week 2 or Week 3 of 1A-4A, and Week 2 or Week 3 of 5A-6A we really don’t know.”

Tom Sooter

In an effort to bolster its numbers, TASO has partnered with “Battlefields to Ballfields,” an organization created by longtime NFL official Mike Pereira, who is now a rules analyst for Fox Sports NFL and college football telecasts, which helps veterans integrate back into their communities through officiating.

“If you are veteran or active duty, and you decide you want to officiate, you apply through our organization and make an application through ‘Battlefields to Ballfields,’” Theodore said. “They reimburse you for all out-of-pocket expenses for that first year. They basically give them a scholarship.”

TASO also created a program called “START,” which stands for “Students Today Are Referees Tomorrow.” It focuses in on the recruitment of high school and college student-athletes to become sports officials.

“Average age of our official is early 50s. Average age of our new officials coming in is almost 40,” said Theodore, who began officiating when he was 22. “We’re getting more members coming in at the later stages of their life, and we need to find a way to reverse that trend.  

One does not need any prior experience to become an official through TASO. All you need to do is complete the application on TASO.org, go through a background check and complete your training through one of 23 local chapters around the state.

“If they signed up today, we’d get them in system, clear background check, join local chapter, and then aside from training,” Theodore said. “Most of their experience will be on-the-job. They’ll get assigned a junior high game or go along with a crew to a varsity game. That crew will be their mentor.”

You can even make a little extra money doing this.

“You aren’t going to get rich off of it, but you’re making a bit of extra money,” he said. “We have guys that rely on that to buy medicine, pay rent or put food on the table. We also have people that could write a check for a high-rise in downtown Dallas.”

Theodore said he’d put TASO’s training up against any other organization’s in the country, and has numbers to back it up.

He said there are 11 officials in the NFL right now that started in TASO, with many others having retired. Numerous more are scattered throughout the collegiate ranks.

“Do we need officials? We certainly do,” Theodore said. "This hasn’t just impacted football. It’s impacted volleyball, basketball, soccer, softball and baseball."

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