The issue of diminishing player numbers isn't the only concern growing in Region high school football.
The officiating ranks are nearing critical mass, reaching the point where there just aren't enough folks in stripes to cover Friday nights.
"We've had moderate shortages for a number of years and now it's hitting the varsity level," Barry Poole, the former president of the Lake County Athletic Officials Association, said. "We just don't have the numbers. If we stay on the path we're on, it's going to get worse. The time is coming quickly when we won't lose sports because of concussion protocol, it will be because of no officials and it will hit all sports."
While the problem isn't unique to football — baseball, swimming and gymnastics are experiencing shortages — it's certainly the most noticeable there because of its visibility.
Poole's crew worked Thursday's Gavit-Hammond game, which was shifted to accommodate the issue. Clark-West Side was also played Thursday. Another game will be moved in Week 9. Some games are also going with four-person crews rather than the regular five.
The LCAOA, which assigns officials for area conferences other than the Duneland, has 18 crews. Some of them are not full, so they have to use replacements each week. They have 10 games to cover next week, but that does not factor crews working Duneland Athletic Conference games or a handful of other schools not in their conferences. Crews are also not bound to covering local games.
"We went to Illinois and they didn't have anybody," Poole said.
When Poole start blowing a whistle in 1981, the average age of an official was between 18 and 21, according to a survey by the national association.
"We knew we had to pay our dues, that we'd have the opportunity to learn at the Pop Warner, CYO, junior high, freshman and JV levels, then move into the varsity ranks," he said. "Now they're going straight from taking the test to varsity. We don't have the luxury of evaluations any more."
The average of officials is now over 45. Mainstays are hanging it up and are not being replaced in equal quantity.
"We're not getting any new blood coming out," Poole said. "It used to be we’d get quite a number of teachers, school personnel. We're not getting that. We had a good pipeline into college for a while with Valpo (University's) intramural program. What we're getting now are people coming up to retirement. They've raised their kids. They're looking for something else to do, so they get involved with sports."
As for the younger ages, Poole believes much of the issue is rooted with increased hostilities. While the money, $70 for a game, isn't bad, it's just not worth it for the grief. Poole's crew encountered it just last Friday after a game, where an athletic director had to intercede with a fan.
"You're taking a ton of abuse," he said. "I don't blame coaches. Their job is to win. My job is to not care who wins. Players have changed. They're not as respectful. Young officials aren't going to know how to handle that, not when you're getting your license on Monday and working varsity on Friday. The IHSAA has been up here and we've told them, if you can't rein in the coaches, fans, players, you're not going to be to able to have games."
Criticism may be the foremost issue but not the only one. Money is better at the collegiate level, so officials who went through a training camp will jump at that opportunity. Some may opt to take travel ball games when events overlap during the fall and spring. Others aren't committed to working lower levels and choose not to see it through if they have to go that route.
"There's an entitlement mentality," Poole said. "If they don't get what they want, they just quit."
With all those factors eroding the supply of officials, those who remain are trying to do whatever they can to bolster the ranks so it doesn't reach the last resort no one wants to see.
"Opportunities are there. I talk to athletes all the time," Poole said. "We'll work with anybody who wants to become an official, point you in the right direction, get you through what you need to get through. We need to figure out how to do this or decide which games are going to be cancelled."