There is a species whose attrition will trend toward endangerment unless its young can replenish the aging population: the zebra.

I’m not the lamenting about the four-legged zebras, though. My thoughts are geared toward the dearth of younger game officials not entering the ranks at the same rate their aging counterparts are retiring.

Median ages of high school athletic officials range mostly in the mid-50s among. Three years ago, the IHSAA average age was 54 years, and I’m quite certain, as the entry of younger officials is still at a drip-drip rate, this median age has likely increased – go figure – three more years.

I’ll turn 59 in August, so if you see me throughout town, I’m very close to this average age.

There are numerous articles and newsreels about the issues driving younger adults away from officiating, and I’m not here this morning to laundry list them.

One, in particular, berating from fans, might play a big part in younger people viewing the work as thankless, or not worth the time and aggravation.

This type of fan noise was noticeably absent from the noise of most gymnasiums between November 2020 and February 2021. I’m somewhat, but not completely, surprised, the post-pandemic lifting of crowd restrictions has done little to improve fans’ collective behavior toward officials.

We need fans, and we love fans, but I harken back, nonetheless, to December 2020.

One particular game, Warsaw vs. Homestead boys’ basketball, was a surprisingly interesting experience. At first I thought a venue with no fans permitted (The protocols in Allen County at the time) was going to be a complete drag.

The gym was populated by coaches, athletes, trainers, managers, and media only.

There are a few things the din of pep bands, and fans swallow up on game night.

It was fun to feel the energy of coaches throughout the game. The JV players in street clothes and the varsity players watching from the sidelines were stoked, and cheered loudly

Were there coaches questioning calls? There certainly were. When you can easily hear coaches and officials interact, though, it’s more… questions and answers, instead of baseless berating like, “You’re awful,” and “Over the back,” to name a few fan classics.

Everyone there missed the fans, even – to their credit – the officials. Neither a single, “Call ‘em both ways,” nor a “How much are they paying you?” was uttered that evening.

Does the host school pay the officials? They certainly do, but game officials make between $60 and $80 per game depending on what part of the state the action is located.

Is this enough to lean your calls toward the home team? Certainly not.

Folks, I’ve signed checks as large as $14,000,000 in my lifetime, and I’ve moved around – on paper – more than ten-fold that amount, and it’s still not enough to take a bribe. If you’re on the take, there need to be enough zeroes on the check to purchase and rule your own private island.

Since the officials cover multiple games without taking their aforementioned per-game checks to a country where people like to hide - like Belize – it’s safe to say the money, nor the game’s outcome result in any bias.

Officials’ post-game discussions are not about the game’s outcome, or the on-court performance of a team or individuals. Their discussions tend to cover addressing coaches’ and players’ concerns (no kidding), keeping the crowd from imploding, and how an athlete’s positioning facilitates whether to make or not make a call.

I remember a different basketball game I covered during the pandemic restrictions where the crowd was small enough to hear the players on the court.

An athlete said, “When are you going to call ‘over the back’?”

The official smoothly replied, “You need to block out in order for someone to actually be over your back.”

As those of us who were teenagers in the late 1970’s used to say, “Burn!”

I’ll give the athlete credit for forming his complaint in the form of a question, though.

Officials are imperfect like every other human, but they’ve also passed a standardized test for certification, and if they are seeing postseason action it’s a result of earning an evaluation score meriting the privilege of postseason officiating.

Zebras are a special species, though. Despite the heckling and berating they maintain composure and continue being the best versions of their collective selves.

There are people making sweeping generalizations about Z-lennials – the blend of Generation Z and millennials – shying away from officiating because they’re not conditioned to tolerate the verbal abuse of fans.

I’m unsure how much truth there is to such a generalization. There is, however, a smorgasbord of activities available to younger people compared to those originally available to those of us near the current average age of a high school referee.

The species is shrinking, and I know a lot of young men and young women who are emotionally intelligent enough, and responsible enough to carry the torch for those who are getting set to retire from officiating.

Fans, on one hand, who keep up the nonsense will be watching high school football on Wednesday nights. Ask some Michigan high school football fans about the energy of “Wednesday Night Lights” because their football programs are resigned to doing what they must to spread their diminishing population of endangered zebras all the more thinly.

I encourage fans to change their stimuli, to at least alleviate some of their negative comments, because elimination is unrealistic, right?

Unless you’re an endangered zebra.