Officials Spotlight: Q&A with Dana Pappas of the NFHS
Posted: Thursday, January 5, 2023 - 11:07 AM
Editor’s Note: This article was featured in the January edition of High School Today Magazine, a publication of the National Federation of State High School Associations. The article was authored by Tim Leighton of the Minnesota State High School League staff. Leighton is a member of the High School Today Editorial Board representing the contest officials across the nation.
Dana Pappas is more than one year into her role as the director of officiating services for the National Federation of State High School Associations. Previously, she served as a deputy director and commissioner of officials with the New Mexico Activities Association for 24 years.
In her role with the NFHS, Pappas oversees officials programming, officials services and partners with state associations to address the challenges of providing the quantity and quality of contest officials to member schools throughout the country.
High School Today magazine caught up with Pappas recently while she was making presentations in a southern state. In a wide-ranging interview, Pappas was candid in the challenges, but also optimistic about what can be done to promote officiating.
HST: If you were to provide a “State of the State” address as it relates to officiating, what would be your main message?
Pappas: Do better. Be better. Collaborate. We all must do better when it comes to recruiting, retaining, educating, training, evaluating, recognizing, celebrating and protecting our officials. We must be better individually and collectively when it comes to how we act at games and the things that come out of our mouths. As adults, we must realize that our kids see the way we act and hear the things we say. We are setting the tone as parents, coaches, administrators and fans. Make sure the tone is positive.
Finally, we must collaborate. There are so many entities involved in some way with officiating, and we all have to work together to change the current sport culture for the better. We need to not only clean up what is in the stands, but we have to make sure we are treating officials appropriately on our campuses and in our facilities across all levels – youth through professional. No one group or entity can do this alone. We have to work together.
HST: Are you concerned about the state of officiating across the country?
Pappas: Absolutely. The dwindling number of officials is certainly a concern because the absence of officials means that students are losing out on participating in the sports or activities they love. While we hear a great deal about the shortage of sports officials, it isn’t limited to athletics. We are seeing a shortage of adjudicators in performing arts, too. The worst-case scenario is having to cancel events because of the shortage. The shortage has been occurring for years and the pandemic accelerated and exacerbated the problem. While some numbers appear to be rebounding this fall, we still don’t have enough.
HST: When we hear the words “recruit” and “retain,” what does that mean?
Pappas: In the simplest of terms, recruit means finding new individuals to bring into officiating and retain means keeping the officials we currently have. In a broader sense, recruitment involves finding populations of prospective officials and asking them to join. It involves speaking to people 1-on-1 about the merits and rewards of officiating and encouraging them to be a part of it. Retention means finding ways to ensure officials are treated well, from hospitality, to sportsmanlike conduct, to having a safe and secure environment in which they can work.
HST: What individuals or groups do you identify in recruiting officials?
Pappas: The NFHS has had its #BecomeAnOfficial campaign for six years and has targeted a variety of groups since its inception – coaches, teachers, first responders are just some examples. As we have met with various entities over the past year, we are looking to do more recruitment of high school and college student-athletes, collegiate intramural and recreational officials, members of the military, and parents of graduating seniors, just to name a few. We are trying to look at people who either have a proven love for or interest in athletics or those who possess similar skillsets to officials.
HST: What are some of the reasons that an individual chooses to officiate?
Pappas: The number one reason is love of the game. People who officiate love the sport or sports they work. Other primary reasons are giving back to a sport that has provided something to them, having the opportunity to be a lifelong athlete, giving back to their community, staying in shape and providing a service for student-athletes.
HST: What is the biggest challenge you face in achieving some level of success in recruitment and retention of game officials?
Pappas: The prevalence of negative stories about officials is probably the biggest challenge. Anytime you look on TV or social media, you see or hear a story about officials being berated, chased off the playing field, approached in the parking lot or being physically assaulted. We consistently showcase WHY NOT to officiate. We need to flip the script and start focusing more on WHY people do and should officiate. The 90 percent of the good that comes from officiating outweighs the negative 10 percent, and we need to make sure we do more to highlight the 90 percent.
HST: Do you need high school experience as an athlete or performing arts participant to qualify as an official or adjudicator?
Pappas: While many current officials and adjudicators were athletes or participants in performing arts, it is not requisite for becoming an official. On the athletics side of things, having been an athlete can give you more of a “feel” for the game, but officials are trained on rules, mechanics, communication skills and other components that make for a good official. The biggest requirement is a willingness to learn! As long as individuals are “coachable” as an official or adjudicator, the door is open for them to be a part of the family.
HST: In recruitment, you can direct individuals to websites for information, but isn’t making 1-on-1 connections equally, or perhaps, more important?
Pappas: Absolutely. The most common reason anyone decides to join the avocation is because someone asked the person to join. While websites and social media are a great avenue for spreading the message, there is no better method of recruitment than someone sitting down, shaking your hand and talking to you about why he or she officiates and why you should, too. Our current officials are our best salespersons when it comes to growing our officiating community.
HST: What are some of the keys that keep officials returning for continued years of service?
Pappas: This is multi-faceted. The first aspect is mentoring. When new officials come in and they have a mentor or mentors to help them through the idiosyncrasies of the craft, they feel like they have support and a willing ear when they have questions about what they should do in a situation either on or off the playing field. The next is training. We have to ensure that new officials are adequately and thoroughly trained before putting them on contests. All it takes is one contest that an official has a bad situation to make them leave. We have to arm them with knowledge before we put them into duty.
The next is receiving feedback and evaluation as to performance. It is hard to stay in a field where you don’t know how you are doing, what you need to do to improve or how you advance to being a postseason official. As part of this, ensuring that assignment processes are transparent and equitable for officials is critical, as many officials leave when their schedules stagnate. Another important key is support of and recognition by the state or local association. Officials must know they are appreciated and should be treated as you would treat members of your family. They must know that their governing body has their backs. When officials feel respected by their governing bodies and the schools that host them (hospitality, safety, sportsmanship and security), the overall experience remains a pleasant one and they will want to stay in.
HST: What is the NFHS doing about inclusion when it comes to recruiting officials?
Pappas: The NFHS is definitely invested in diversity and inclusion, and we are working to ensure that we are doing more to illustrate that officiating is for everyone. This is not just in our #BecomeAnOfficial messaging, but we are also providing tips for state associations in terms of how to recruit more women and minorities. One of the things we know is that people will not join an activity if no one else looks like them or represents them – this is not just in officiating or in sports. This is in life.
We must be mindful of the fact that our officials need to represent our entire demographic. We want to have five-year-old children in the stands not only aspiring to be the next great athlete or coach, we want them to look on the floor or field and realize that they, too, can officiate because someone “wearing the stripes” looks like they do. This philosophy and approach are integral in how we recruit, how we mentor, how we assign.
HST: In the fine arts, there are also challenges in recruiting and retaining adjudicators. Are there some parallels between the athletics and fine arts when it comes to finding officials?
Pappas: There are indeed. The same is true with regard to shortages of teachers and coaches, too. There are shortages in these important roles in high school athletics and activities across the country. Performing arts and fine arts are no different when it comes to the need for adjudicators, and the pandemic accelerated the retirement of some adjudicators, just as it did officials. Performing arts and fine arts face the same challenges with finding people who want to serve in this capacity, and we need to work with music educator associations to start recruiting and training the next generation of adjudicators nationwide.
HST: Tell us more about the latest NFHS campaigns regarding sportsmanship at high school events?
Pappas: On September 15, 2022, the NFHS launched its #BenchBadBehavior campaign. The campaign was born out of the discussions held at the Officials Consortium 1.0 in April 2022. Dr. Karissa Niehoff realized at the Consortium that the issue is bigger than just sportsmanship and that it came down to uncivil and unruly behavior by parents and spectators. She made a promise to the attendees that the NFHS would launch a full-scale sportsmanship initiative to be used by state associations, national governing bodies and any other sport entity looking to improve the sport climate.
Many NGBs have already started using the campaign in their sports, and we hope to continue to grow the initiative across all sports and all levels so that parents understand acceptable standards of behavior from the time their kids start athletics at age four until they finish their athletic careers.
HST: What do you envision coming out of the Officiating Consortium 2.0 as it relates to improving the climate for officials?
Pappas: The purpose of Consortium 2.0 is to take all of the ideas we learned from Consortium 1.0 and give state association administrators, principals, athletic directors, coaches’ associations, media and security tools to improve the sport climate at their athletic contests. The focus of Consortium 1.0 was figuring out the “why” of the officiating crisis. Consortium 2.0 is focused on providing any entity that wants the “how” of fixing the athletic environment within their school or organization.