Since its founding in the early 1990's, the Georgia Athletic Official’ Association has grown exponentially beyond the expectations of Mike Wood’s vision for an organization that would coexist with the Georgia High School Association. The intent for his association was to help officials develop resources and work with each other; a goal set to improve the consistency and quality of high school officiating.


In 1992, the GHSA added their current president, Dr, Ralph Swearngin, to their staff as the association’s first commissioner of officials. His duty for the position involved upgrading the reliability and credibility of officiating in all of Georgia’s high school sports. This role allowed Swearngin to build relationships with multiple officiating groups, as well as with people like Wood.


“Mike divided the state into some areas and had some meetings, and it just never really took off,” said Swearngin. “It accomplished some good things, but it didn’t have the vision Mike wanted, and before he could develop it, he got transferred out of state.”


Wood’s departure left the program in shambles. Its leader was lost, and no one truly stepped up. After a while, several people tried to get the association back to a functioning level. Such people included Allen Anderson and Brockey Brock, who tried to make progress within the organization. However, due to previous commitments and lack of time, both had trouble helping the program progress. In part due to these other commitments, they decided to step down from the program.


Because of Anderson’s and Brock’s limited improvements to the program and loss of interest, the association became dormant for a while. Then, after a few years of relative inactivity, the officials saw another group that catalyzed them – the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association.



For years the GACA had for years presented awards for the Georgia officials of the year. This gave the officials in the state the idea they should create an association similar to the GACA. They wanted an organization in which they could organize themselves, and around this time, Alan Smith took charge and started developing the program that is in place today.


“It wasn’t until around 2007 or 2008 that it really began to develop under Alan Smith’s leadership,” said Swearngin.


Under Smith’s leadership, the GAOA became the modern association that functions today. There currently are three components to the GAOA. First, it acts as a resource for officials, in addition to GHSA, to improve their officiating abilities. Clinics are held every summer to help officials improve on their jobs.


“Every August they have their own conference and they bring speakers in and talk to people about improving their officiating skills,” said Swearngin.


A second function of the GAOA is to help officials from different parts of the state interact and communicate with each other. It also allows officials from different sports to communicate with each other. For instance, officials from a sport like lacrosse may hardly ever interact with baseball umpires or football officials. The GAOA helps create bonding in a group that may usually act in a splintered manner. Even with in the same sport, bonding did not occur until the formation of the organization.


“It gives a good opportunity for officials across the state to have a social experience,” said Swearngin.


Lastly, the GAOA serves as a beacon of communication from officials to the GHSA, allowing GAOA members to give feedback to the GHSA so changes can take place for future events. This function helps bring consistency to the state’s officiating quality and credibility. Even with the GAOA formed, the training of officials is done primarily by the GHSA; several staff members are responsible for creating training programs for officials. The GAOA goes more in depth in the training and enhances what GHSA preaches in further detail.


The program also maintains consistency because of its instructors. Many times, GAOA instructors conduct officiating courses for the GHSA. Staff members at the GHSA remain in contact with Smith and work as a team to ensure consistency. This helps create mutual guidelines which both organizations follow. By working together, the GAOA and GHSA help create a partnership with one another. In coexisting with each other, they enable conversations between the two groups to ensure consistency.


Within the GAOA, officials feel that they have a sense of ownership. They feel that they belong to something they are a part of. With the GAOA, certain courses and training that now exist were not close to reality.


“The officials take pride in their organization and what it does,” said Swearngin. “I think that is a good thing.”


In addition to the referees’ social outlet, other benefits are included in becoming a member. One such incentive of membership with the GAOA is receiving a pass for any GHSA athletic event in which they attend as a spectator.


“We have that little perk and I think that it is well appreciated by the officials,” said Swearngin.


In addition to being a perk, it allows officials to view their peers and study the way they officiate.

One way of gaining access to membership in the GAOA is by officiating through the GHSA or at a GHSA venue. Membership to the GAOA also is not exclusive to only GHSA officials. Officials from collegiate level intramurals also have an open invitation to join the prestigious organization. For example, officials at Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech, and the University of Georgia receive training through the GAOA and gain access to membership. This helps improve the officiating not only on a high school level but in the collegiate ranks as well.


Membership from collegiate level officials who work intramurals has helped bolster the GAOA’s membership. Since the organization’s founding in 1992, it has grown from a group of 50 to over 3,000 members. This has well surpassed the expectations set decades ago and has also contributed to the hosting of summer conferences.


Another factor in the association’s growth is its relationship with the GHSA. Unlike other officiating associations, the GAOA has a great relationship with the state high school association. In other states, such camaraderie does not exist.


I am very proud in Georgia that we have a very strong relationship between the Officials’ Association and the GHSA,” said Swearngin. “In some states, that is not always the case. Sometimes they’ve gotten into a fight with each other, but that has not been the case here.”


The bond between the GAOA and the GHSA is strong and gives the state some of the best officiating anywhere.


By Scott St. Lifer