Second in a two-part series about the lack of officials for high school and college sports. Today: how to recruit more officials.
The solution to the shortage of referees in the state and across the country is attracting young people to officiating, selling it as an extension to their athletics careers beyond high school and college.
Mark Wise of Washington is one such example. He played at Washington High School and is an emerging as one of the better and committed scholastic officials, in basketball and football.
His grandfather, the late Patsy Mazza, was a longtime football and basketball official from the midget and youth leagues all the way to varsity.
Wise, a relative newcomer with three years of basketball and two years of football experience, views his being a referee as an extension of his playing days.
“I like being a referee because it gives me the same butterflies before the game as it did when I played,” Wise said. “Those are feelings that if you’ve never played a sport in high school or college you’ll never understand.
“I love giving back to the game. In a way, I feel that I owe the game that. All those things I did as a player I still do as an official. I love every single second of it. It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. And it’s something I wanted to do to honor my grandpap.”
Wise is an advocate for better recruiting methods and being more precise in reaching and teaching perspective officials.
“I think they should have job fairs for kids in high school and in college,” Wise said, and show all the positives that come along with it. They can do local rec games, intramural games at their respective college. I think that would make people want to get out there and learn. They could also make a lot of money and every kid in college wants money.
“Thankfully, I have worked with guys that have been doing this much longer than I have. I am one of those younger officials, but I’ve had the proper help and guidance to be able to call big games on the Class 5 and 6A levels.
“I was told that the best officials are the ones that no one even knows they’re there,” Wise continued. “I took that to heart. I go in with that mindset that I’m going to go out there and give the best effort I have. I’m not perfect and I am going to miss a call here and there, but you know I’m going to give you all I have that game and every game that I do.”
Patrick B. Gebhart is the assistant executive director of the PIAA. He is responsible for the oversight of the officials program, coordination of the PIAA Officials Convention, and is tournament director for football and basketball championships. He said the PIAA has sent posters and information to all schools in the state promoting officiating and providing information to attract potential officials.
“That’s our targeted area,” Gebhart said.
He added that the PIAA Board of Directors adding a supplemental disqualification (participants potentially missing two games rather than one after being disqualified) has given the state an ability to curb bad behavior and has extended officials’ jurisdiction. Gebhart said the PIAA has reduced the number of meetings officials need to attend and are making use of Zoom to eliminate travel to required events.
Gebhart hopes those actions will help in recruitmenting and retention of officials.
Gene Steratore, retired NFL and NCAA referee and current CBS rules analyst, stresses that potential young officials with an athletic background need to see and understand the lifestyle of an official is parallel to playing careers.
“It’s the same,” Steratore said. “I found that as an official, I was still training, focused on nutrition, getting proper sleep, watching film and other related things in preparation for a game. As an official, you are not playing but you are a big part of it with a job to do, rules to follow and giving your best effort.”
John Cherup, a longtime baseball and softball umpire, agrees that umpiring and officiating are like playing and stressing that point is integral for attracting new members.
“I think the WPIAL and PIAA should use the local colleges and universities as recruiting grounds,” Cherup said. “Many high school athletes go on to college and their playing days are over. Being on the field as an official in a game that you played for many years and are passionate about is the next best thing to still playing the game. It would provide them a source of income as well.”
Teaching recruits professionalism is another other essential element, according to Cherup. Coaches can help by remaining cordial and respectful to the arbiters of the game.
“Many coaches and officials are on a first-name basis because they see the same coach/official year after year,” Cherup said. “I have (experienced) out of control parents in youth leagues, and it seems to me that they feed off the coach. If he’s disrespectful to an umpire or official, they feel that it’s OK for them to behave in the same manner. Look at our society, it’s become acceptable to demean and ridicule.
“In turn, with any profession, umpiring and officiating has a certain level of decorum that should be adhered to. Treat others in the same manner that you want to be treated. Dress the part, look the part, and act the part. It’s as simple as wearing the proper uniform and respecting the game. There are some officials who think that the game is about them. These individuals make us all look bad. The game is never about an official.”
Geno Sedlak, who has been an official for 28 years, working high school and college baseball, and high school football, basketball and softball, said the situation today because of lack of recruitment for more than a decade.
“The biggest reason that we are facing a shortage of officials across the board is recruitment,” he said. “It’s a true statement when we say parents and coaches are some of the reason we are having problems with recruiting (and retaining) officials of all ages.”
Social media has has caused some prospective officials to reconsider.
“The toxic atmosphere in society and the use of social media has been difficult for younger officials to navigate,” said Larry Maggi, a longtime wrestling official and Washington County commissioner. “This is especially true when they are working and raising a family and they could be front and center on social media, and the use of sometimes inaccurate online information.”
Perhaps volleyball official Mabel Culp has the perspective all should consider.
“When I go to a gym, it is my goal to not be remembered at all,” she said. “I go to facilitate a game by ensuring the rules are maintained fairly.
“Because the generational gap between spectators and officials is growing, the lack of respect has grown as well. Continued education in officiating is not keeping up with the high slope upwards that the level of competition is climbing. Because of this, the respect from coaches goes down followed by parents and spectators. It becomes almost a normalcy. That can be a scary deterrent to a job you are nervous and new to begin voluntarily.”