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Whistle blown on officials shortage

WARREN — Matthew Vadas sits at home on Wednesday nights in the fall, hoping his phone doesn’t ring.

He knows the subject matter probably won’t be good if he gets an evening phone call from a random number. No, he’s not worried about a telemarketer telling him his car warranty is expiring. Vadas, an officials assigner in the Mahoning Valley for the past seven years, is worried about hearing from one of the referees he assigns.

“I dread the 10 p.m. phone call from an official because I know there’s either an issue with the coach, or someone got hurt,” Vadas said. “The last thing I ever want to do is call a school and say ‘Look, I know you hired me to find officials, (but) I just can’t do it today.’ And it happens. They understand, but they don’t like it.

“If one or two officials get hurt, I know on Thursday there is going to be a canceled game somewhere. That’s how close of a tightrope we work from mid-August until the middle of October.”

A lack of officials has become a state-wide problem, and it’s getting worse.

The Ohio High School Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations co-authored a letter in January and sent it to media outlets across the state to alert as many people as possible of “an alarming shortage” of officials in Ohio.

STOP YELLING!!!

The descent started in 2010 and reached a 10-year low this year. OHSAA Director of Communications Tim Stried said a big part of the decline is because older officials are retiring, and there isn’t an influx of younger ones to fill the void. The main reason there isn’t anyone waiting in the wings? They don’t want to deal with irate fans.

Over 75 percent of high school officials who quit say “adult behavior” is the primary reason, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Sports Officials. It’s also a big reason younger ones don’t join the field, with 80 percent of all young officials quitting after just two years.

“Obviously, when you’re an official, you have to have thick skin,” Stried said. “You have to not mind getting yelled at. The way that many officials get yelled at these days makes a lot of younger officials not want to do it.”

The poor treatment is widespread throughout all levels of sports, but the worst of it is actually at the youth levels, according to John Mang, an officials assigner in Mahoning County for the last 30 years. Mang, who assigns for 43 schools and also is the commissioner of the Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference, said parents and coaches at that level are not as focused on basic fundamentals. Instead, their attention is on winning at all costs.

“I have meetings every year and try to tell people, the fans, they just have to lighten up,” Mang said. “Probably the worst level for officials and fans are at junior high. I have meetings every year with the head coaches for each sport, and I try to tell them to talk to their seventh- and eighth-grade coaches because every game isn’t a super bowl. You’re there to more or less teach mechanics and fundamentals, and (wins) and (losses) shouldn’t have a lot to do with it. Although in our society, that’s all it’s based on.”

Vadas is on the same page.

He understands the passion a parent has for his or her child and that winning is often the objective for coaches, but there’s a line that seems to be crossed more often than not — sometimes even leading to violence.

“I had an official assaulted during a fifth-grade basketball game this year,” he said. “It’s just sad. It’s fifth grade! What are these parents thinking?”

VOICE OF REASON

The OHSAA — and even state politicians — are doing what they can to help.

The letter sent during the winter was titled, “Dear mom and dad: Cool it” and asked for parents and fans who attend games to essentially “cool it” when it came to berating officials.

It added: “Make no mistake about it. Your passion is admired, and your support of the hometown team is needed. But so is your self-control. Yelling, screaming and berating the officials humiliates your child, annoys those sitting around you, embarrasses your child’s school and is the primary reason Ohio has an alarming shortage of high school officials.”

The OHSAA is not alone in their efforts.

Officials have become more than just targets for verbal abuse. They’ve also been physically attacked, as Vadas mentioned. Ben Ferree, the Assistant Director of Officiating and Sport Management for the OHSAA, said there were six reported incidents that involved physical attacks on officials last year, and “There are hundreds of incidents each year less severe than that.”

In an effort to stop those types of attacks, a legislation was initiated by two Akron officials to make any attack on a referee treated as a felony. House Bill 208 would raise the minimum penalty of assault on an official to a felony, according to Ferree.

This is similar to the law regarding teachers, administrators and bus drivers. An assault on any of those individuals is an automatic felony. The OHSAA has testified before the house criminal justice committee in support of the bill. Ferree said there will be, at minimum, one more hearing before it’s decided whether or not to advance the bill.

It’s a step in the right direction in the eyes of Vadas.

“Unfortunately it’s become all too common where you won’t get a special phone call if you had to toss a fan out or something,” said Vadas, who’s also a football referee. “We all get (criticism), even the good officials are getting it. It’s ultimately the responsibility of the athletic director at the home school to protect those officials, and they do a good job. If there’s really a problem, they take care of it. With this new law that we’re trying to get passed to make it a felony for anyone to assault an official, it’s nice knowing these schools and these elected officials are going to have our back, treating us the same as a school employee.”

FILLING THE VOID

The OHSAA, officials assigners and schools are doing more than just asking people to chill out in an effort to boost the number of officials.

One way Vadas is looking to increase numbers is by offering high school senior basketball players a free officiating course. The minimum age to be a registered official is 14, however it takes years to reach the varsity level, so a younger referee would generally work youth-level games to start.

“We’re trying that program out next year, seeing how it works,” said Vadas of the free course. “If it works in basketball, I’m going to take it to the soccer guys and the football guys.”

Another way they’re trying to increase participation is by offering the course for credit — both in high school and college.

Stried said it can be more challenging to get universities and college students on board because the cost of a college course is generally much more than the officiating class itself. However, Vadas noted that it would be ideal for certain majors and minors that need an athletic credit as it would both fill that void and make them a registered official.

High schools are starting to add the course as well, and there may be more potential at that level as the cost is absorbed by the school.

“We’re having a lot more success at the high school level,” said Stried, who added that Cambridge High School is offering several officiating classes for various sports. “Cambridge has something like five or six sport-officiating class options available for their high school students that are all four-credit elective classes, which is the most we’ve heard of.”

MAKING PROGRESS

There are, however, signs of life in the officiating ranks.

Stried said there has been an increase of officials going into the 2019-2020 season. The number of OHSAA registered officials was around 15,000 as of mid-July, according to Stried. That’s the highest number since 2013-14.

“The biggest thing we’ve tried to stress, number one, is just getting the word out that we need officials,” Stried said. “A lot of people don’t even realize there’s a shortage. Number two is working and supporting our schools through classes for officials. … Now we are seeing a slow rise this year in our number of licensed officials. Obviously we hope that number keeps going up. It had been going down, and there were a couple of years it went down by a few hundred. To see it go back up a little bit this year was really exciting, and we were happy to see. We hope that the efforts are paying off.”

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