PIAA working to solve shortage of sports officials

Saturday, January 28, 2023 | 5:14 PM

Greg Fenton recently had a rare Tuesday night off. The junior varsity basketball game he was scheduled to officiate was postponed.

So instead of working a game, he watched a video stream from his Latrobe home of the Wildcats taking on Quaker Valley. Far from the sounds of screaming coaches and fans, he was still able to be part of a sport that has engulfed much of his life.

Fenton, 64, has been officiating since 1983, when he and a couple of friends decided to become basketball referees.

“My friends and I tried it and liked it,” said Fenton, who a few years later also became a certified umpire. “My first game was a JV game at Blairsville. The score at halftime was 4-2, and the final score was 10-9. I made $25.

“I love the game of basketball. I come from a basketball family, and I’m just trying to give back. You can’t play games without officials.”

Fenton jokingly said he’s been getting yelled at for more than 40 years.

“I try not to let the fans interfere,” Fenton said. “I’ve joked with a few and asked them to become an official. We usually share a chuckle. I see how people treat officials. Most of the time, the fans don’t know the rules.”

Fan behavior is one of many hardships impacting high school officials, or the lack thereof.

Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association administrators are dealing with a shrinking workforce of high school officials across the state, struggling to find enough to work games and maintain order as high school student-athletes take to fields, courts, mats and pools.

The state’s governing body for high school athletics is actively working to alleviate the shortage, trying to recruit new and younger officials with commercials, public service announcements and social media posts, along with having registration tents open at state championship venues.

PIAA officials also have instituted a Junior Officials Program that allows high school-aged students to officiate middle school games alongside a seasoned official to gain experience.

Numbers game

Since 2020, the number of officials in Pennsylvania has shown a significant decrease across the 23 PIAA-sponsored sports.

According to PIAA statistics as of October 2022, obtained from District 6 officials representative Mike Hudak, there were 17,932 registered officials in 2008. Over 10 years, that number fell to 16,533. By 2020, it had dropped to 15,100. After a slight increase to 15,780 in 2021, the current total stands at 13,596.

There are 1,907 registered officials working in District 7 (WPIAL), many of whom officiate multiple sports.

The numbers range as low as 38 for gymnastics to between 500-640 for swimming and diving, more than 600 for track and field and wrestling, around 1,100-1,400 each in baseball and softball, more than 2,000 for football and 3,000-plus for basketball.

PIAA assistant executive director Patrick Gebhart, who is in charge of oversight of the officials program, said he believes the PIAA has weathered the storm, but more officials are always welcome.

“Our numbers across the state have increased by 400 members since Sept. 1,” Gebhart said. “Other states are not as lucky. We can always do better.”

Why are they leaving?

Covid limitations and restrictions and low pay scale are among the reasons officials left the profession. Unruly fans and disrespect from coaches and players are others. In some cases, older officials said it was too much hassle to go through the state clearances process.

“Covid didn’t help,” WPIAL male officials representative Nick Morea said. “We’re getting older, not younger. The younger people don’t want to get into it.

“The disrespect shown to officials from coaches and fans is unacceptable. Those fans and coaches have to realize that is someone’s father, mother, son and daughter out there. They are doing the best. No official gets up in the morning and says, ‘I’m gunning for that team or this player.’ They are there to do the best job possible. They’re not going to please everyone.”

Officials come from all kinds of backgrounds: teachers, coaches, lawyers, police, school officials, postal workers, etc.

“In the early years, teachers and coaches did it to supplement their income,” Morea said. “That’s not happening now. It takes a special person to officiate. They have to know the rules, be able to communicate and able to handle unusual situations.

“If you go to any athletic event, there are a lot of officials in the stands not wearing stripes or solid colors. We tell them the PIAA needs officials, and they can go to the PIAA website and sign up. That generally doesn’t happen.”

Offering protection

If State Rep. Anita Astorino Kulik (D-Allegheny) has her way, verbal abuse of sports officials will result in a hefty fine.

Kulik introduced legislation Thursday that would create a separate offense for harassment of a sports official.

She said in the memorandum that “sports officials, such as umpires and referees, are essential to the sporting events thousands of families attend in each year in Pennsylvania and to the youth sports programs that build community and foster fitness in Pennsylvania youth. Regardless of the sport, a sports official’s job is a highly stressful one.

“This is due in no small part to the split-second, often contentious, rulings they are required to make. These calls sometimes result in a strong disagreement expressed by players, coaches, and spectators. In one survey, nearly half of sports officials report they had felt unsafe or feared for their safety because of the behavior of an administrator, coach, parent or player. While current law protects sports officials from cases of assault, current law does not offer additional protection from harassment.”

By introducing legislation, Kulik hopes officials would be able to perform their duties without threats of personal injury, administrative hearings or litigation because of their game calls. Similar legislation has been enacted in Alabama and Louisiana.

Starting them young

Gebhart introduced the Junior Officials Program last summer with a goal of building a larger network of officials who stay with it through high school and beyond.

A PIAA official has to be 18 years old, but the junior program allows 16- and 17-year-olds to work ninth grade games and lower under the guidance of a seasoned official.

Any individual interested needs to fill out an application and pass that specific sport’s officials test. The application fees and second-year registration fees are waived, if applicable. Clearances can be waived until they are 18.

The individual then needs to join a chapter and attend meetings. Chapters are encouraged to create a mentor coordinator. The junior official must work with a veteran official.

The idea is for coaches to encourage students/players to become officials and to treat all officials with respect.

PIAA officials encourage the program as a way to stay fit, make extra money, learn life skills and stay connected to sports by learning rules.

Norwin athletic director Mike Burrell, who also is a football official and baseball umpire, said he likes the junior program. But he also warns that fans at middle school events can be tough on officials, so it’s important to protect those in the program. He said he recently had fans removed from a middle school basketball game.

A request for class

The National Federation of High School Associations recently hosted a national media session in an effort to bring attention to this critical matter of unruly fan behavior.

Incidents of individuals yelling insults and obscenities at officials and fans tracking down officials after games sparked the discussion because state organizations are having a tough time keeping officials because of the abuse.

The webinar highlighted the fact that, as state associations sign up another person to officiate, obnoxious behavior by fans drives two or three others away. In fact, the National Association of Sports Officials reported that 7 of every 10 first-year officials quit by the end of three years.

They shared a tweet from Noah Bjerke-Wieser, a basketball player from La Crescent-Hokah High School in Minnesota who is trying to change the trend. “We all know that there were some controversial calls, but nothing is going to be perfect,” he wrote after a game. “As a captain of the varsity team I would like to come out and say we need to stop yelling at the refs, us as players, and as spectators in the stands. Nobody will ever call a perfect game, and everybody makes mistakes. We all get it is frustrating watching and playing in a game where the officiating is not great. But we need to stop. It is hard enough to get officials to ref a varsity game anyway; it doesn’t help when they specifically don’t want to ref for a La Crescent game because they know they will be getting yelled at.

“As players and spectators, we need to let the players play, the officials officiate, and the fans cheer. I know I am not perfect in this too, but we need to change. I hope we can all come together as a community and change for the better. Thank you for coming and supporting us but let’s support our team in a positive way.”

Spring’s around the corner

Morea said his immediate concern is the lack of umpires registered for baseball and softball in the spring. A year ago, he registered more than 100 officials. He hopes the number continues to rise.

“We have assignors scrambling to get games filled,” Morea said. “A lot of times baseball and softball games are held on the same day, which is a problem.

“And because many fields lack lights, baseball and softball games begin around 4 p.m. Not everyone can get off work for those times. Fee also could be a little higher, too.”

Standard pay for football and basketball officials is between $90-$95 per game, while baseball and softball umpires make around $60-$75.

Sticking with it

While there’s a push for a younger generation to join, the PIAA and WPIAL also rely on their most experienced officials.

One of the oldest officials still going strong is 72-year-old Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi, a wrestling official for 52 years.

“I remember Dave Cook and I took the test in October of 1971 at Connellsville at the urging of the late Frank Vulcano Sr.,” Maggi said. “My first match was a junior varsity match at Beth-Center. I did the junior varsity, and Frank did the varsity.”

Maggi, a county commissioner for 20 years, is a retired state police officer and county sheriff.

“I’ve always liked wrestling,” Maggi said. “My dad would take me to watch Claysville (McGuffey) wrestle when I was young. I wrestled in high school and college (Cal, Pa.). We need officials.”

Maggi said he doesn’t expect to retire anytime soon.

“I’m in good health, and I’m in good shape,” Maggi said. “As long as I have health and cognitive skills, I’ll continue. If I start to lose cognitive skills, my friends and coaches will let me know.”

And what advice does Maggi offer anyone interested in becoming an official?

“I’ve had a great career,” he said. “Wrestling is a great sport. It’s what life is about. You have to be prepared. Officiating helped me in politics.”

There are many officials who have more than 35 years of experience and plan to continue offering their services for the betterment of high school athletics.

But the PIAA knows to be successful and continue to function, it needs a younger group of dedicated officials willing to endure certain hardships so student-athletes can continue to enjoy sporting events throughout the school year.

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at pschofield@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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