FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. - John Gray has officiated football for nearly 30 years and was the crew chief recently for a Thursday Night game in Fairfax County between South Lakes and Robinson.
He says it’s been a tough few years, estimating half of those who left did so because of COVID, and the other half quit because they didn’t want to deal with the verbal abuse.
"Officials were really tired of the verbal abuse, mainly from parents in rec games," Gray said. "In the school game we don’t hear the parents because they’re up in the stands, but they were really just tired of the threats from the parents."
For a varsity game, Gray is supposed to have a five-person crew. There were times the last few years when there were just four, exacerbating the frustration of officials, coaches, players and parents.
LORTON, VA - SEPTEMBER 7: Referees collaborate after postponing the game of Centreville at South County due to lightning in the area in Lorton, VA on September 7, 2018. (Photo by Will Newton for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The Northern Virginia Football Officials Association contracts with schools to cover football games, and Gray said they’re a rare success story: This year, they’ve had one of their largest recruiting classes in years.
"We have more new officials in this year’s training class than we’ve added at least seven years back," Gray said.
Gray credits previous FOX 5 reporting on this issue for more people getting interested, but the pay in Virginia is higher than in Maryland as well.
Deron Tross is the commissioner of the Washington District Football Officials Association, which staffs many games played in Maryland.
Tross told FOX 5 they’re still short on officials and have had to work with schools this year to schedule a few games on Thursdays and Sundays because of the officiating shortage.
While the challenges are great, Gray remains optimistic.
"There’s been a groundswell of support for officials now, it’s actually reversed itself," Gray said. "People are thanking us for doing it. They’re recognizing us. It’s rewarding in that regard."
Gray believes there’s been an increase of self-awareness from schools, parents and athletes on improving sportsmanship, and respecting officials. He hopes that continues happening everywhere and improves the situation.
A Robinson Secondary School Official told FOX 5 that the Virginia High School League has recommitted efforts encouraging schools to have conversations about the importance of sportsmanship and respecting officials, especially since so many have hung their whistles up.