Most people in Tennessee would not know of the referee shortage influencing high school sports across the state. As Tennesseans open their newspapers, scroll through news feeds, or explore social media, the stories they read about high school athletes encompass students' on-field experiences, tout the statistics of a team or players, or broach the more controversial subject of TSSAA transfer regulations.
Yet, one look at any high school football field this season in Tennessee, even to an untrained eye, would have unveiled the cloak of civility that referees from the TSSAA officiating crews try to uphold.
There was absolute madness across high school football fields in Tennessee this season.
In September, during a high school football game between Tyner Academy and Sweetwater at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, shots were fired outside of the stadium, and officials herded both teams to the locker room quickly, while fans left the stands for the concourse, unsure of where exactly to go. The game resumed only 15 minutes later, despite no source of the gunshots found or perpetrators caught.
TSSAA does not provide a script for how to deal with shots fired on or around the football field, but the organization does provide a rule book and establish a code of conduct for its officials.
An October game where William Blount traveled to Soddy Daisy became an exposition of officials’ inexperience and lack of professionalism, and it started in the first quarter when the chain gang could not maintain the downs properly.
The head linesman, a mathematics extraordinaire, began counting for them.
“15-25. 37-47. 48-42,” he barked the numbers out after each first down, like Roger Staubach calling plays five decades ago. The referee noted the exact points that the chains needed to be placed to keep the game going.
The yard lines inverting at midfield had become too much for the chain gang to handle. Much like some people struggle with military time, math on a football field can be tricky also, but the people who are assigned to keep track of where the football needs to be, and how far it needs to go to keep the offense on the field, should understand the basics of mathematics and know that the field resets at the 50-yard line.
On the field, the officials were not calling personal fouls, and their decision to “let the kids play” began to blow up at the end of the first half when two players, one from each team, scuffled at midfield, yet only one player, one from Wiliam Blount was ejected.
An on-field explanation given by the officials to the Wiliam Blount coaching staff provided no reason for the ejection, and when the officials returned for the second half of the game, the position of Umpire was now taken by a different person, as the official in the press box for the first half had offered to come down to the field and get the game back under control as Umpire.
“The officials in the second half were clueless. They changed (the) head referee at halftime, and the guy that came (into the press box) was inept,” said Stan Painter, a member of William Blount’s broadcast team, Gov Nation.
The new official failed equally as miserably, and in the fourth quarter, William Blount quarterback Brett Cortez was tackled after running for a first down, and held down by one Soddy Daisy player, while another attempted to punch him repeatedly in the groin, but yet again, no ejections for the Soddy Daisy players.
Soddy Daisy’s PA announcer turned the PA on during William Blount’s next play, and in disgust of the home team he was calling, told the Soddy Daisy players, "Come on boys, act like you've played the game before."
The PA announcer walked away from the microphone, refusing to call the 4th quarter, but he left the microphone on, and over the following plays, it broadcast an argument between Soddy Daisy’s PA announcer, a Gov Nation production team member, and the lead official in the press box to the entire stadium.
The Umpire on the field was puzzled as he looked up at the press box when he heard the gain crank up on the microphone and the commotion start to sizzle over the stadium horns.
Then someone in the press box dropped a bomb.
“What’s this guy looking at?” someone in the press box said to the Umpire on the field.
“Hey buddy, I’ll come down there and kick your ass!”
The William Blount student’s section erupted, possibly hoping William Blount’s 55-14 blowout might turn into a WWE match and make the 2-hour drive down to Hamilton County worth the time.
William Blount’s defensive coordinator Jeff Cortez, in a desperate attempt to inject some sense of respect back into the game, turned to his students’ section and asked them to stop the heckling, extending an olive branch to Soddy Daisy that might have settled the emotions of the game.
There were, at least, a few adults present that evening.
TSSAA, to their credit, was able to foresee the referee shortage this season and to avoid the cancellation or postponement of games, they scheduled football games on Thursdays and Fridays all year and had games scheduled with more frequency on Thursdays as the season progressed, with their idea being that this would allow some officials to work games on both Thursday and Friday.
The problem at the core of the shortage is simple. Who in their right mind would want to spend a Friday night being heckled by adults and kids over a high school football game? It turns out, less and less people as the season wore on.
When William Blount traveled to Jefferson County the next week, the song remained the same, and before the game, the Jefferson County Athletic Director was talking with two new officials who were explaining how this was their first game officiating, not only this season, but ever, and this was happening in the final game of the regular season.
These officials never had the game under control, and at one point, a referee using a TSSAA-provided cell phone to keep the game’s time was heckled so intensely by the William Blount student section, that he lost his composure, and perhaps his sense, when he turned and looked at the students and threw a flag.
The students loudly voiced their disapproval. This was their 10th game of the season, and they knew this rookie crew was no match for them.
The referee, now realizing that he could not throw a flag on them for heckling him, turned and looked at a journalist, looked over their press badge, and then turned to William Blount Athletic Director Scott Cupp, before looking at William Blount Head Coach Robert Reeves and asking, “who is he (Cupp)?”
Coach Reeves was puzzled by the question, but frankly played it up a bit, pretending not to know the AD, he responded to the referee, “Him? I don’t know. He’s our AD.”
The referee told Cupp that he could not be there.
“Why can’t I be here?” Cupp asked.
“You’re not with the team,” The official replied.
Cupp and Reeves exchanged a look of believable bewilderment, that anyone who had watched a high school football game in Tennessee in 2023 would understand.
Somewhat amused by the exchange, they were obviously surprised that Cupp was being asked to leave, but that request coming from this officiating crew, of all officiating crews, should not have surprised anyone watching in Jefferson County that night.
Cupp, walked away in disbelief, knowing there were better arguments to be had, he relished in the joy of walking off the field to a now frenzied student’s section, and he tipped his cap to the faithful Governors’ fans who were cheering their endeared AD, but once he was off the field, they ramped up the insults to the official on the field.
“Get off Tender,” a student yelled to the official keeping time.
“Stop texting your mom,” shouted another.
A few plays after the ejection, William Blount scored, but before the ensuing kickoff, Jefferson County's AD was standing at midfield, looking over his phone and discussing something on it with the official behind the ejection. The AD pointed at his phone, and then to a journalist on the sideline.
The two had watched a video posted to social media by the journalist that showed Cupp walking off the field following the ejection, and the Jefferson County AD now had William Blount’s administration contacting him about the ejection of its AD and a potential TSSAA fine.
William Blount wanted details, but aside from the video, there was no other information to be had. The official did not technically eject William Blount's AD, and it was explained to the media that the official merely asked him to leave the sideline, no penalty was thrown, and therefore no fine was issued, but what remained unexplained was why Jefferson County’s AD was able to roam the sidelines and field free of referee harassment for the remainder of the game, while the opposing AD was relegated to the stands.
The comedy of errors that is TSSAA football is unfortunately less humorous and more erratic than coaches, fans, or players would ever desire in their football. Even Vince McMahon would not have wanted this in his 2001 version of the XFL.
Who the hell would want to do this for their community, as a hobby, or fun? A person would have to be in it for one of those reasons because no one does this for the money.
Starting pay for TSSAA officials is around $18 an hour, and for about the same wage, they could wait tables indoors at an air-conditioned Applebee’s, and deal with a much happier and quieter clientele.
For all the social progression TSSAA looks to establish by adding equal sports and facilities under Title IX, the organization fails to put plans in place that compensate or encourage people to become an important part of high school sports.
“Without officials, it’s just recess,” TSSAA reminds sports fans. It’s a terribly ironic tagline the association touts, given the grade school behavior shown by some alleged adults around Tennessee sports this season.
Anyone can be taught rules, but dealing with unruly people takes talent, and that talent must be acknowledged more often by our community and rewarded more by TSSAA. If the association is serious about expanding its sports offerings, it must create more respect around officiating by elevating the few in the position who are good at what they do with more financial compensation.
“Most of what an official does is enforce rules that protect the players,” TSSAA official Heather Lowery reminds fans. “Officiating and rule enforcement is what separates school athletics from street ball.”
Schools are willing to spend millions of dollars to upgrade stadiums, but the playing surface, the locker rooms, press boxes, and video screens are not what makes football – football. It is the rules.
Copyright © 2023. Bradenco Broadcasting.