Articles

Dwindling number of high school sports officials a growing concern

By Steve Blackledge
The Columbus Dispatch

Here’s a suggestion to those who make a habit of criticizing and riding the officials at high school sporting events: Why not try it yourself?

The timing couldn’t be better. Various sports are in need, in some cases resulting in overworked officials and even cancellation of games.

“It depends on the sport, but in general there is a dearth of officials right now,” said Beau Rugg, an Ohio High School Athletic Association assistant commissioner and the organization’s director of officiating. “It ebbs and flows, specifically in some pockets of Ohio. We’re woefully short in some sports.

“Recruiting is a No. 1 charge for us. We’re trying to get into high schools now and get folks interested. We’re thinking younger. We’re hoping that the 96 percent who don’t play sports at the next level might want to stay involved. The reality is when our veteran officials retire, there’s nobody stepping up to replace them, and that’s a concern.”

Since the 2010-11 school year, the number of prospective officials has dipped by as much as 40 percent in some sports, according to data provided by Rugg’s assistant, Ben Ferree, who handles certification classes.

Those taking classes dropped from 600 to 419 in baseball and from 325 to 174 in softball. In football, officials attending classes fell from 422 to 290, in basketball from 920 to 662, and in volleyball from 310 to 192. There are 15,225 certified officials in Ohio, down some 1,400 over that span.

“The numbers vary from year to year, but on the whole, trend down,” Ferree said.

“I don’t know if there is any one factor that is causing the decline. I would say it is a confluence of factors, including the amount of money officials make, the amount of ire officials receive from fans, players and coaches — especially in the social media age — and the amount of time it takes to dedicate to officiating. With the shortage, the officials that we do have are often working three to five nights a week, and that can put a strain on any household.”

Perhaps the chief area of concern is in soccer.

Mike Althoff, who assigns soccer officials for the Central District, said many throughout Ohio are licensed to work soccer, but that also includes youth, adult and recreation league matches. Some rarely see a high school field.

“We’re really, really stretched thin,” Althoff said. “On weekends, there are cases when some folks are driving all over the place, doing three or four games spanning from morning to late in the evening. We’ve had to reschedule some varsity and JV games and play them back to back so the same crew can work both games. Most high schools prefer to have three officials, and that’s pushing it sometimes.”

Retired official Chris Williams, a Gahanna-based observer for the OHSAA and auditor of the Licking County Soccer Officials Association, said the shortage of high school soccer is reaching the critical stage.

“We had a meeting for officials about a month ago and about 90 percent of them were 40 or older,” he said. “Those people will step down in time and there’s not enough younger people coming in to replace them. My understanding is that this is not only a statewide thing, but coast to coast.”

Althoff echoed Ferree’s assessment about the dwindling numbers.

“The younger kids just laugh when we try to recruit them,” he said. “Lots of coaches and parents in our sport are nasty and obnoxious, and it drives people crazy. They want no part of it.”

Rugg said some sports, namely football and basketball, are on fairly solid ground.

Rugg stopped short of saying that the quality of officiating has been compromised by the shortage.

“The veterans who are out there are doing a great job,” he said. “The average age of officials is high, and that means they’re more experienced. That’s why we’re recruiting younger folks. Ideally, you want to create an environment of survival of the fittest. That way, you’ve always got your best out there working.”

Those interested in becoming an official should begin by visiting ohsaa.org/Officiating/permits.

Bob Von Kaenel set to enter OHSAA Officials Hall of Fame.

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The honors keep on coming for Bob Von Kaenel.

Von Kaenel is one of 13 individuals that have been selected for induction into the Ohio High School Athletic Association Officials Hall of Fame.

The OHSAA Officials Hall of Fame induction banquet is scheduled for June 10 in Columbus and will welcome these 13 individuals selected by the OHSAA Officials Hall of Fame Committee.

Each of the 13 inductees is being honored for outstanding officiating careers and significant contributions to interscholastic officiating in Ohio. More information on the OHSAA Officials Hall of Fame is posted at: http://www.ohsaa.org/Officiating/HOF

“It is an honor to have an Officials Hall of Fame where the best in Ohio are recognized for their outstanding careers and their dedication to officiating,” said Beau Rugg, OHSAA Assistant Commissioner and a member of the Hall of Fame. “Officiating is a service and it is a joy to recognize these highly respected individuals with induction into the Hall of Fame. We thank all officials for their service to student-athletes, coaches, schools and other officials.”

Von Kaenel, who will be inducted for his years of officiating football, was inducted into the Ohio High School Basketball Hall of Fame a year ago.

He has worked nine state championships and 14 state semifinal games and is the longtime head boys basketball coach at Dover.

Last season, Dover’s Fred Mamarella was an inductee.

In 2009, Von Kaenel was announced as the Alumni Achievement Award Winner at Alderson-Broaddus University for all of his coaching accomplishments.

Local football officials find officiating a way to stay involved in the game.

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At 100th anniversary Gilman-McDonogh game on Nov. 7, 2015, left to right kneeling: Adam Sidle , Jay Buck, Steve Smith; back row (left to right): Norm Henn, Alvis Dickerson, Patrick Nagle, James Byrd, Tony DiChiara and Alonzo Ramsey Jr.

At 100th anniversary Gilman-McDonogh game on Nov. 7, 2015, left to right kneeling: Adam Sidle , Jay Buck, Steve Smith; back row (left to right): Norm Henn, Alvis Dickerson, Patrick Nagle, James Byrd, Tony DiChiara and Alonzo Ramsey Jr.

Brian Brumfield used to be one of those guys giving the referees an earful from his living room couch every time he watched a football game.

“I was always yelling at officials on TV, ‘Hey, you missed that call,’ and someone said, “You should go out and try it if you think you’re that good,'” Brumfield said. “And I thought, ‘You know what? I should.'”

Three years ago, Brumfield, who played high school football in Louisiana, got back into the game.

Now, he’s the one who sometimes gets an earful while officiating high school games in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association as a member of the Maryland Board of Football Officials.

“I like sports, I like to be involved and I was past my playing days,” he said, “so I figured what a great way to stay active, stay relevant and stay involved with football.”

Brumfield will be back on the field in September and he would urge other football fans and referee critics to give officiating a try. The Maryland Board, which always has openings for new refs, provides a three-year training program that gives officials in-game experience right away, working junior varsity and varsity games.

Patrick Nagle, a past president of the Maryland Board, played football at Loyola Blakefield and at Holy Cross. Twelve years ago, he donned the zebra stripes.

“I would recommend it, because when younger guys are finished with football — their college careers or even their high school careers — it’s a great way to stay in touch with the game,” said Nagle, 60. “You’re right on the field in the middle of the action. Last year, I did the McDonogh-Gilman game — the 100th game — and it was great to be part of the game. You’re in that whole atmosphere, which is exciting.”

Rob Miller, heading into his ninth season with the Maryland Board and his fifth as a college referee with the Northeast Conference, said, “I enjoy standing out there in the fall, even in the rain or the snow, with hundreds of people. It’s just an awesome feeling to be part of the game that you love.”

Many officials who work with the Maryland Board hone their skills by officiating recreation games while others move up to officiate college games. One former Maryland Board official, Jonah Monroe, now works NFL games.

For high school officials, however, the pinnacle is being chosen to ref a game like the McDonogh-Gilman rivalry, the Calvert Hall-Loyola Turkey Bowl or a state championship.

Miller, 35, officiated the Turkey Bowl last season and a state championship game in 2014, both at M&T Bank Stadium and on live television.

“I’ll never forget working the state final, standing on the 50-yard line at [the] Ravens’ stadium with the national anthem playing,” the Kenwood graduate said. “Who would have ever thought, seven or eight years ago when I started this, that I would ever get that opportunity? Officiating has taken me more places — and even more for guys like Jonah — than we ever would have dreamed when we first started.”

Miller said he has met good friends through officiating where there’s a brotherhood to show you the ropes. Even though they’re competing for the big games, they “hang out and socialize” after Monday meetings.

It’s also a great way to make a few extra bucks with refs earning $55 for a JV game and up to $85 for some varsity games, said Jay Buck, a fourth-year referee and public relations director for the Maryland Board.

Officials meet every Monday night during football season for a couple of hours at Woodlawn High School. They evaluate tape and go over rules.

“The main goal is to understand the rules, understand the mechanics, positioning, where to be on the field, the right angles,” Buck said. “When you’re 55 years old, you’re not going to chase a 17-year-old down the field. You have to be in the right position.”

In his first year, Buck worked a McDonogh game with a veteran chain crew behind him that included Monroe and two other college veterans.

“That night around 11, I get an email from Jonah Monroe saying, ‘Here’s what you did really good,’ and it’s an inch and a half, and ‘Here’s what you need to work on,’ and it’s a page and half,” Buck said. “I thought he was spot on and I’m a sponge, because I want to learn as much as I can.”

Each official, no matter how good he gets, experiences those moments when coaches disagree with him, players get upset or fans yell.

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever done in my life where from day one, you’re supposed to be perfect and get better from there,” Miller said. “Even at the highest levels, guys make errors, but that’s life isn’t it? You’re going to screw up at times and it’s all about learning from it. When you’ve got somebody screaming and hollering at you, you just try to be water to that spark as opposed to gasoline.”

Brumfield said, “You want the game to go on as if you’re not really there. They don’t come to the game to watch the officials; they come to watch a good game.”

Sitting on his living room couch on a fall Sunday afternoon, Brumfield doesn’t watch NFL games the way he used to.

“Once you start doing this, when you watch the game, you’re going to watch the officials more than you watch the football game,” Brumfield said. “You’re watching the officials and their mechanics. Whenever they throw a flag on the field, I find myself watching that to see why they do it. We watch hours and hours of film, so for me it’s another opportunity to watch people on the field that I respect.”

For information about becoming a football official, go to the Maryland Board of Football Officials’ web site, mbfo.org.

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Benefield: It’s time to cheer those hard-working referees
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They wear black and white striped jerseys that you can see for miles. And still they try not to be noticed. They blow shrill whistles and wave their hands in the air. And still they try not to be noticed. High school football officials will tell you their goal is to let the game play out as unfettered as possible; for folks to leave the stadium not giving the officials a second thought.To notice them is to criticize. To call out to them from the comfortable confines of the stands is usually to signal that you know the rules better than they.And of course, you don’t.“Usually the person who yells the loudest knows the (rules) the least,” said Joe Demeter, of Oakland and who officiated Friday night in the North Coast Section playoff game between Rancho Cotate and Analy high schools.And everyone with a little bit of high school ball under his belt is an expert — made even more so with the benefit of video replay in slow motion.High school officials don’t have that luxury. Even with a state-mandated minimum 18 hours of annual training and sometimes decades of experience, calls are missed. Boos — and worse — ensue.To some extent, it’s part of the game. But officials say that increasingly, the level of abuse hurled at the men and women who are very close to volunteering their time to make sure these athletic contests can be played, is making young refs quit and keeping many from even signing up.“It is hard to get people to come out and take verbal abuse,” said Spencer Crum, youth football leagues assignor for the North Bay Officials Organization.“It’s pretty tough at times. Some games are better than others, obviously,” he said. “If you can get on or off the field and no one knows your name or who you are, you have had a successful game.”Success is key because perfection is impossible.

“No one has ever worked a perfect game, it doesn’t matter what level,” said Pete Dardis, the high school football assignor for the North Bay Officials Organization.

“Human error will take place somewhere in one game or another,” he said.

Like when Petaluma High lost to Analy on Nov. 6 on a last-play Hail Mary that with the help of slow-motion and freeze frame looked like it may have been shy of the goal line but which was called a touchdown. Or two weeks later when an inadvertent whistle in a crucial play changed the course of the contest between Petaluma and Rancho Cotate.

You watch those games or read the follow up stories and you ache for the players and the coaches.

But ache for an official?

Yes.

Those moments — because they are just a moment, not a whole game — are an official’s worst nightmare, when the focus lands on the guy in stripes instead of the kids on the field.

“It’s a very difficult avocation,” Dardis said. “It’s a very, very difficult situation. It happens so quickly and if you are not in the right position you can miss it.”

And face it, you can be in the best position in the world and still make a mistake. It happens.

But also consider what these guys are putting into the game.

They take game days off from their “real” jobs, or take off early, all season long to travel to and work games and to get paid just more than enough to cover the cost of gas.

So many times and in many ways this past week I’ve asked variations on the same question: Why?

The answers are different, but not really.

“How many 59-year-old guys can say they get to run up and down the football field?” said Jim McGeough of Castro Valley.

McGeough left Oakland at 2:30 p.m. to be the head official at the Rancho Cotate versus Analy playoff game at Santa Rosa High Friday night. With a pit stop at Round Table with the rest of the crew who worked the game, McGeough arrived home at 12:30 a.m.

And he was paid the princely sum of $90.

But don’t tell him he’s crazy to essentially volunteer his time. He loves it.

“I love the kids. I love the sport,” he said.

He must. He’s been doing this for nearly 40 years.

Officials say they tune out the blowhards and the crazies. They are trained to leave the field almost immediately after the final whistle, lest some genius offer to give them a primer on the rules.

Most say they’ve been threatened, insulted and berated. But they also talk about staying near the game, being able to give back to a sport that they love, enjoying the company of student-athletes. The crew working the playoff game Friday night? Two drove down from Eureka, most have decades of experience.

You don’t keep doing this if there isn’t love there.

The talk in the locker room among officials after Friday night’s game was kind, not blustery. It was curious, not know-it-all. No game is without its bumps, they go over them and move on.

“Fraternal” is the word McGeough used.

To see the officials behind the scenes is to gain new perspective when Larry Loud Mouth bellows from the stands. Or when the rooting section chants a chorus of a curse word that’s a synonym for cow poop.

It’s certainly not particular to just football. Basketball refs say they get it worse because they are so close to the action. Soccer referees get it too. Everybody’s an expert.

At a recent under-9 State Cup soccer game of exactly zero consequence, a grown man (I’m using the term loosely) had to be escorted from the sidelines by men in a golf cart not once but twice after he came back from his first ejection wearing a disguise. As if a new hoodie could mask a moron.

Call the 22,000-member National Association of Sports Officials and the phone tree offers this option “ … for assault information, press three.”

The officials I talked to would prefer we don’t notice them. The greatest compliment is to nearly forget they are there.

But in these days of smart phones and instant slow-mo analysis, the verbal dog-piling and second guessing is almost immediate.

Referees sound a lot like coaches and student-athletes when they talk about mistakes and moving on, about imperfect games and blown calls. They have all made them and they’ve all gnashed their teeth over them. They are working on their game too.

And they keep suiting up and showing up. Your kids can’t play without them.

To a person, the officials I spoke with this week said their goal is to be as discreet as possible, to go about their duties in near anonymity and let the game unfold without a heavy hand.

They are not looking for thanks, but simply a well run game.

To say thanks might break the spell.

But go ahead and break it, they might not mind, just this once.

 

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In an Eyewitness News Investigation we took you inside the dangerous game of football with high school referees. Our crew followed officials during an entire game in Clovis earlier this season. These referees shared their perspectives on the highly scrutinized and sometimes dangerous positions they find themselves in working on football fields across the Valley.

There is a need for high school officials in just about every CIF sport.

Wired for sound: High School Referee:

http://www.yourcentralvalley.com/news/wired-for-sound-high-school-referees