Referee shortage sweeps the state

The lack of referees in Pennsylvania is causing a massive shortage, and has resulted in the PIAA making changes in referee requirements

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The PIAA is experiencing a severe shortage in referees and rowdy fans are a top cause.

By Jacob Hawn , Bellwood-Antis High School

Pennsylvania has a reputation for having passionate sports fans, especially on the high school level.

It is quite possible, however, that their fervent fandom will be the end of high school sports in the commonwealth all together.

The deteriorating fan climate at the high school level is resulting in PIAA officials leaving the business, and fewer young people are signing up to replace them. The result: a true referee shortage in Pennsylvania.

“Over the past 15 years, and even more recently, numbers continue to drop,” said Mr. John Garritano, a PIAA official who taught at Bellwood-Antis and continues to serve as the school’s assistant AD. Mr. Garritano, who emphasized his statements do not reflect the Bellwood-Antis School District, has been a basketball and football official since the 1970’s.

“Seasoned or veteran officials are retiring or quitting, and no one is stepping up to take their place.”

According to an article published by Trib HSSN, the PIAA has nearly 3,000 fewer officials registered since 2008. Further, 48% of officials claimed that they felt unsafe due to the hostile environments within competitions.

This trend, however, is not only seen in the state of Pennsylvania. A referee shortage is also sweeping the nation.

The NFHS, or National Federation of High-School Sports, conducted a survey among high school associations indicating that there has been a massive decline in the number of officials over the last several years. Approximately 50,000 officials have discontinued their service since the 2018-19 season.

“Fans and coaches try to justify their actions as ‘in the heat of the moment’, or yelling and berating officials because they do not agree with the call or penalty,” said Mr. Garritano. “Bashing officials has never been part of the game. It has been allowed to escalate to the point where the shortage of officials will continue because of fan behavior.”

B-A officials say that they don’t see a general trend towards abusing officials at home events in Bellwood.

It has been allowed to escalate to the point where the shortage of officials will continue because of fan behavior.”

— Mr. Garritano

“At times there have been passionate parents who made inappropriate comments towards officials,” said B-A principal Mr. Richard Schrier. “I think our student section and parents and community are positive fans and support our team.”

Many other schools, however, are experiencing difficulties with fan etiquette, causing the PIAA to set new rules and schedule changes in an effort to combat inappropriate behavior.

“PIAA is cracking down on this and there is a very low level of tolerance of this type of behavior from fans, coaches, and athletes,” said B-A athletic director Mr. Charlie Burch. “This is a huge focus of this current school season.”

Mr. Jim Weston, who has been a PIAA official for 13 years, feels that game managers should be tasked with more responsibility in combatting rowdy and aggressive fans. In addition to being a game official, he also takes part in mentoring new officials.

“We study situations and rules, as well as how to apply it,” said Mr. Weston. “I would say 70% of them won’t work past a year because they can’t take the physical abuse.”

The pandemic has also proved to have an impact as well, compounding the issue of quick turnover among PIAA officials.

“COVID decimated the ranks. Many seasoned officials took an inactive status due to COVID. Many did not return,” said Mr. Garritano. “This made the shortage of officials worse. New, young officials pass the test and officiate on average two years, and then quit.”

To address the declining numbers, the PIAA is now recruiting a new generation of officials, aiming towards high school level students. To become a registered PIAA official, a person must be either 18 years old or have graduated high school, as well as pass a test and complete a background check.

In addition, PIAA has created a junior official program, allowing 16-and 17-year-olds to receive their certification and officiate in games for grades 7-9.

Whether or not this program will work is still up for debate. Some current officials have their doubts.

“I don’t think 16 and 17-year-olds are going to come back in their 20’s because they’re going to have a bad taste in their mouth,” said Mr. Weston. “The worst experiences I have are from elementary parents coaching their kids.”

Weston said the better way to implement a junior official program would be for older officials to take on younger people interested in the business and the aid them almost like apprentices.

Mr. Burch says that the area is surviving, and is better off than other parts of the state.

“If the shortage gets really bad, you will start to see football games that normally would be played on Friday night, be played on Saturday afternoon or Saturday night. In basketball, leagues will have to attempt to avoid playing the same nights as other leagues in the area,” said Mr. Burch.

Promoting better behavior and attitudes towards officiating has become a huge topic of interest for not only spectators and players, but also coaches, and that could be where inappropriate aggression towards officials could start to turn around.

“Coaches need to model proper behavior for their athletes to see,” said Mr. Burch. “A player growing up watching officials being berated is highly unlikely to want to do that job.”

This story was originally published on The BluePrint on December 1, 2022.