Dwindling number of high school officials part of troubling nationwide trend

Saturday, February 15, 2020 | 12:38 PM

As a high school basketball official in his early 20s, Joe Strednak wasn’t much older than the athletes on the court. Occasionally, someone would test his poise as the youngest ref on his crew.

To him, that came with the job.

The 25-year-old from North Braddock is now finishing his fifth season of WPIAL varsity basketball and already has officiated two boys championship games at Petersen Events Center, including the Class 6A final last year.

He’s quickly become one of the area’s top young officials, but admits this job isn’t for everyone.

“Many people around my age have a problem with handling confrontation,” said Strednak, who earned his PIAA official’s card at 18 and now works college games as well. “Walking out on the floor, I know I’m going to make mistakes. I know that I’m going to have to deal with a coach and a player. In the digital, social-media age, people don’t enjoy being able to handle person-to-person conflict.”

Along with memorizing the rule book, a steady demeanor is always a good trait for any sports official, but nowadays it’s probably more important than ever.

There’s a shortage of sports officials in the WPIAL, a problem that extends across Pennsylvania and stretches nationwide. The profession needs to add more young officials to its ranks, but persuading millennials like Strednak to don black-and-white stripes has proven difficult.

“I don’t want to say I didn’t have video games and stuff like that, but my parents made me go out and taught me communication,” said Strednak, who uses those same skills as a licensed funeral director. “I deal with people constantly, and that’s what I love. I try to pass that along to more young people and show them how rewarding (officiating) can be.”

Missing millennials

There are more officials over the age of 60 than under 30, according to a 17,000-person survey by the National Association of Sports Officials, and the number of incoming recruits doesn’t match the number of retirees.

The PIAA has nearly 3,000 fewer registered officials now than in 2008. That shortage soon could have real consequences.

As early as this fall, the WPIAL may ask some football teams to play games on Thursday or Saturday because there aren’t enough officials for every team to play Friday night. WPIAL associate executive director Amy Scheuneman raised that concern at the league-wide football meeting in December, urging school administrators to encourage former students to pick up a whistle.

Why can’t organizations recruit more refs?

That’s often blamed on the verbal and sometimes physical threats officials endure from aggressive parents and fans. Pennsylvania already has a law that specifically protects sports officials from assault, but a state legislator from Allegheny County recently proposed making harassment also a crime.

However, the reasons behind the shortage are more complex than simply abusive fans, said longtime basketball referee Bill Sinning, who represents male-sports officials on the WPIAL board of directors.

“Candidly, everyone blames the spectators and the fans for why we don’t have enough officials,” Sinning said. “That’s one of five things causing the problem.”

Sinning doesn’t dispute that officials are at times under siege. The NASO survey, which collected more than 17,000 responses in 2017, found 48% of officials felt unsafe or feared for their safety because of administrator, coach, player or spectator behavior.

“People have been assaulted outside the gyms this year,” Sinning said. “A coach has gone into a locker room after a crew of officials.”

And those acts weren’t in far-flung corners of the state. One was “as close as Beaver County,” said Sinning, whose officiating career earned him induction into the WPIAL Hall of Fame.

While ill-behaved spectators draw much of the ire, Sinning blames coach conduct as well for keeping officials’ ranks low. In his view, disrespectful coaches encourage disrespectful players and incite disrespectful fans.

“I could name you a half-dozen basketball coaches right off the top of my head who are a pain,” Sinning said. “It’s not a pleasant night.”

But he sees other less-talked-about factors at work as well.

For one, careers and lifestyles have changed over the years. Nowadays, Sinning sees people who are busier with their jobs or family, and don’t want to commit their free time to officiating.

He also cites PIAA regulations as a deterrent, such as the need to pay for three separate background checks every five years, including an FBI clearance that requires fingerprinting. Officials now also must secure their own general liability insurance, which the PIAA had covered until last summer.

Lastly, the industry maybe isn’t as welcoming as it should be.

“There’s no training or mentor program like there used to be,” Sinning said. “I don’t want to say (veteran officials) want to protect their games and keep working, but back in the day, it took a while to get on the varsity field. The people today expect that to happen right away, and our existing pool of officials — rightly or wrongly — push back on that.”

When he first became a basketball official, Sinning waited seven years to work a varsity game. Now, a competent newcomer can reach the varsity level in two or three, he said.

“I don’t care how you put them into a blender and spit them out, those are all of the issues,” Sinning said. “Which is more important than the others? I don’t know. We’re banging on the fans. That’s real, but I don’t know that it’s No. 1 in the list of complaints.”

Costly endeavor

Statewide, the PIAA has 15,100 officials this year, a total that double- or triple-counts officials who are registered in multiple sports. Still, that’s down 9% from just two years ago (16,533) and 15% from 2008 (17,932).

Every PIAA sport except lacrosse saw a decline in registered officials during that 12-year span. Basketball dropped 11%, football was down 16% and baseball declined 25%. The PIAA and WPIAL both have launched efforts to recruit more officials.

Anybody 18 years old or a high school graduate is eligible to become a PIAA registered official. Applicants must register on the PIAA website and pay $30, which gets them a rule book and study sheet.

Candidates must score 75% to pass the test and can take the exam twice, if needed. The new officials then must pass the background checks that cost around $59. Those clearances, first required in 2015, are valid for five years.

Many current officials must renew theirs this summer, which could usher some veterans into early retirement. Another 10% to 15% attrition would be “devastating,” Sinning said.

Once approved, all officials must join a local chapter, where dues are $45 a year, and attend seven meetings a year. Games are assigned through the local chapters.

A national decline

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state facing a dwindling number of officials, said NASO founder and president Barry Mano, whose organization conducted the 2017 study.

“It’s a nationwide issue,” said Mano, who was a basketball official for 23 years. “We’re not replenishing the ranks of amateur sports officials to the degree that we have to. A good example would be that, in 1976, the average age of people getting into officiating was roughly 21. In 2016-17, the average age was 44.

“This is a very graying industry.”

Mano acknowledges that a time crunch deters some potential candidates, and current officials aren’t always the best ambassadors for the job. But he ranks fan, coach and player abuse as the primary cause for officials quitting.

While working as a public speaker, Mano gives a presentation titled “Sports Is Life With the Volume Turned Up.”

The NASO survey found that 57% of officials thought sportsmanship was getting worse. Only 16% said it was improving. Asked who was most problematic, parents received 39.5% of the vote and coaches were second at 29.6%, followed by fans at 18.3% and players at 10.1%.

“People look at that and say, ‘Why would I go out and work a youth game or a high school game with people yelling and screaming at me?’ ” Mano said. “That is the No. 1 reason people get out of sports officiating because of unsporting behavior. That’s what the survey shows.”

NASO keeps track of states that enact legislation to protect sports officials. Currently, it lists 22. Most laws involve physical assault, but Louisiana enacted legislation last summer that prohibits the harassment of a school or recreation athletics official.

State Rep. Anita Astorino Kulik, D-Allegheny, announced in January that she was looking for co-sponsors for a similar law here. Her husband, Joseph, is a longtime WPIAL football official.

“Currently, sports officials are protected only in cases involving assault,” Kulik wrote to her colleagues. “I believe this protection should be extended to include harassment. Sports officials should be able to perform their duties without threats of personal injury, administrative hearings or litigation because of their game calls.”

Changes ahead?

Earlier this school year, Sinning presented the WPIAL administration with statistics that detailed this area’s officials shortage. Basketball is in “reasonable shape,” but there are serious concerns for football, soccer, baseball and softball.

There are 119 schools that play WPIAL football, and the sport uses six-man officiating crews. There are currently 530 football officials but not all of those work varsity games.

“I’ve already asked the athletic directors executive committee that they can’t play every game on Friday night now,” Sinning said. “On either Thursday night or Saturday, each section has to play at least one game on those off nights, throughout the WPIAL from 6A all the way down to A.”

Soccer has 211 boys and girls teams and 281 officials. The sport uses three-person officiating crews, but might need to consider reducing them to two, Sinning said, unless there’s an unexpected influx of officials.

“I don’t see it getting better anytime soon,” he said, “and I don’t know what specific thing has to change to make it happen.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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