JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Through small gifts, high-fives and other acts of respect this month, Conemaugh Valley High School players and coaches, and others, showed Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association officials how much they’re needed at student sporting events.

“We did some things … to show our appreciation for the referees,” high school Principal Jeffrey Miller said.

As a former player, coach and official, Miller knows how hard the job is – and how few people are doing it.

The shortage of high school sports referees and umpires in Pennsylvania has been building for years and was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to PIAA data, there were 17,932 registered officials in 2008, dropping to 16,533 in 2018. The number of referees and umpires shrunk to 15,100 in 2020, briefly rebounded to 15,780 last year, but dropped again to 13,596 as of October.

Sports programs across the state with the fewest officials as of October are gymnastics, with 38; girls’ lacrosse, 313; field hockey, 375; and boys’ lacrosse, 386. Other programs – such as swimming and diving, track and field and wrestling – have between 500 and 640 officials each, while basketball can draw on nearly 4,000 referees; football has about 2,000; and soccer, softball and baseball have about 1,100 to 1,400 each.

In this region – PIAA’s District 6 – there are 776 registered PIAA officials, with roughly 10,000 total across 13 districts. (Mike Hudak, PIAA District 6 officials representative, said the discrepancy in the totals is because many officials work more than one sport.)

Miller said high school sports are going to be in trouble as the number of officials continues to shrink.

“It’s scary right now,” he said.

The principal urged anyone involved in sports at Conemaugh Valley to show appreciation for the referees at the games during PIAA Official Fall Appreciation Week, which was observed from Oct. 2 to Oct. 8.

“If you’re a referee, you’re not doing it to get rich,” Miller said. “You’re doing it because you truly have a knowledge and understanding of the game … and I think they do it because they want there to be contests for the kids.”

Shawn Sinclair, a PIAA official for basketball, baseball and softball and the assigner for the Northern Cambria PIAA chapter for all three sports, is certified to officiate in several states because he played sports throughout his secondary career and wanted to give back. Convincing others to do the same hasn’t been easy.

Sinclair said he’s recruited new, young officials and assigned them to elementary games during a weekend, only to have them resign on Monday because of how they were treated by the spectators – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“To go officiate for $75 and get absolutely abused for three hours is just not worth it,” he said.

Miller agreed, saying that referees are often treated as lightning rods by fans, players and coaches who are unhappy with calls and games.

“They’re a very easy target, and I think that’s an injustice to them,” Miller said.

Sinclair added that officials do their best.

“You just have to make the call and keep the game going,” he said.

Miller noted that referees and umpires are human, not robots.

He said sometimes they make wrong calls, but they don’t do it on purpose and they don’t deserve the hostility they often receive afterward.

Sinclair also noted that although no official goes to games for the money, pay has been an issue with new recruits.

Because of the shortage, some games have been canceled, and Sinclair expects that “it’s only going to get worse before it gets better unless we have parents or someone step up.”

As a way to mitigate this issue, the PIAA board of directors recently approved a motion to create a Junior Officials Program, Hudak said.

Pat Gebhart, the PIAA assistant executive director who has oversight of the officials program, introduced the concept a few months ago.

Right now, a person has to be 18 to be a PIAA official, but the junior program would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to officiate ninth-grade contests and below.

Interested individuals would fill out applications that would be routed through the PIAA, which will waive the application fees and second-year registration fees, if applicable.

Applicants would still need to pass the sport examination, affiliate with a chapter and attend meetings, but not get clearances.

Hudak said chapters are being encouraged to create mentor coordinator positions, not just for the junior program, but for all new officials.

Conemaugh Valley staff will continue their efforts to raise awareness of the shortage.

The district’s school board also approved increases for the pay of sports officials at the August meeting. Now, varsity referees will get $70 per game; junior varsity, $60 per game; and junior high, $50 per game, which includes the “B” game.

“Without them, we don’t have these contests,” Miller said. “These kids can’t play sports.”

Anyone interested in being an official or looking for more information can call Sinclair at 814-650-9442.

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