Low pay, abusive fans make it difficult to recruit more PIAA officials

Drew Markol
Bucks County Courier Times


That was the initial reaction PIAA baseball umpire Daryl Dobos had when he heard the "out" call coming from the other side of the diamond.

"We were doing a district baseball game and the host team, Boyertown, was making a big late comeback," Dobos said. "I had my back turned to first because I was watching the runners (on second and third). I hear one of my partners call out and almost immediately the entire Boyertown bench runs on the field to complain and yell at us.

"I had to play bodyguard for my two partners, and we had to be escorted out and were getting grief from the fans, the players, the coaches. I have no idea whether the guy was safe or out, but the call was made. 

PIAA officials for all sports are in short supply and recruiting efforts to fill the ranks is a seemingly never ending process.

"Situations like that are rare, but it's part of what we do. I've been officiating for a long time, and I love doing it."

Dobos, 53, who also officiates field hockey and basketball, is part of a shrinking number of refs — a problem that is statewide and growing.

"We're trying everything we can think of to get more officials for every sport," said LJ Frisina, a longtime official and the officials' representative for District 10.

"Just take a look at softball. We have 17 umpires in the Erie chapter and five of them work the college games. If we have a day where there are 15 high school games, we can't cover them all. We're doing the blend where the umpires will officiate the junior varsity and varsity, but there just aren't enough to go around."

Check it out:Track and field: Legendary Pennridge coach Bob Hosier steps down

The graying of officials — without younger folks stepping in — is a significant part of the problem. The pandemic added to the woes as many officials stayed on the sidelines and will have to decide if they want to return to the field at some point. And the fact that most athletic contests are held after school, when many people are working, is also an issue.

'Being deaf helps' when officiating 

A ref makes sure that a football player's shoe won't come untied again. Officials are in short supply across the state.

There is plenty more to the officiating shortage than time of day, ageing of the officials and COVID-19.

"When you're officiating, especially when you're first starting out, being deaf helps," said one official who requested anonymity. "Nobody likes to get yelled at. But parents can be brutal.

"I've known so many officials that just didn't want to deal with it and ended up walking away after a short time."

Poor behavior:'It seems to get progressively worse': Bad fan behavior at games has unseen consequences

"That's the biggest problem we have," Frisina said. "And it's the same thing all over the state and anywhere else for that matter.

"Who wants people screaming at them? You get used to it, but that takes time. A new official hears it and says, 'Why do I want to bother with this?'"

According to a recent study done by Ohio University, some of the main factors keeping people from becoming officials include:

  • Poor remuneration;
  • Verbal and physical abuse directed at officials;
  • Limited career growth opportunities.

Learning to deal with the criticism, just letting it go, isn't easy, but can be done.

"We do get a lot of grief, but all of the yelling I hear is just white noise at this point," said Dobos, who has been officiating for over three decades.

"We all officiate because we love it. If we didn't love it, we wouldn't take the abuse on our ears and our bodies."

Check it out:PIAA Class 6A baseball title: It was no fluke why La Salle won state championship

Officials are paid roughly $75 for a varsity game (football officials make a little more) and that pay decreases depending on what level (junior varsity, middle school) is being worked.

Certain PIAA sports, including wrestling, could benefit from an influx of officials. Those in charge of assigning refs to games and matches say an aging pool of officials and time and day scheduling issues make it difficult to staff every game.

But would bumping up that wage (assigners negotiate with the various leagues to set the pay scale) help fill the ranks of officials?

"I don't think so," said Tom Brady, the District One male officials' representative for the PIAA.

"If someone is working and can't get to a game in the afternoon, it doesn't matter how much you pay them. If they can't get there, they can't get there."

The economy plays a role

If things are going well with the economy, low jobless rates and higher wages, the opposite takes hold when it comes to officiating.

"Full employment is a killer when trying to get officials," said Roberta Butler, the District One female officials' representative for the PIAA.

"When you have that, people don't need the extra money, or can't get out to the games, or both, and our numbers go down."

A changed workforce also plays a part.

"I would say over the last 15 to 20 years, women changing professions have taken a lot of them away from officiating," Butler said. "Instead of going into teaching, where they had their afternoons free, or being stay-at-home moms and being able to officiate a game in the afternoon, they now have 9-to-5 jobs.

"That's just the way it is. I've taught a lot of former lacrosse players how to officiate but if they can't get out of work, they can't get out of work."

Certain sports struggle to find officials

A ref watches for infractions during a boys' and girls' swim meet in York County.

Girls' sports struggle to find officials, but the boys’ teams are not free and clear.

"When we brought lacrosse in (2009) as a PIAA sanctioned sport, we were probably not ready with the number of officials that we needed," said PIAA assistant executive director Pat Gebhart. "The sport exploded, but the number of officials didn't.

For subscribers:Meet the 2021 Intelligencer/Courier Times baseball All-Star teams

"And field hockey is another sport where there is a need for more officials. Field hockey is mostly officiated by females, but many start a family and step away from officiating. And even in football, where everyone would love to see seven-person crews, we have to go with six-person crews in the Lackawanna area and other areas go with five-person crews."

"We've been using five-official crews forever in football in District 10," Frisina said. "Using six is not even a thought anymore. We're now thinking about asking our schools to move games to Thursdays and Saturdays. 

"We did that in the past, probably five or six years ago, where we asked each school to play a game on a Thursday or Saturday just so we can free up officiating crews.

"We know that everybody wants to play football on a Friday night, but it's just a numbers game we're working against."

More:York County basketball players earn $110,000 in scholarships for good sportsmanship

 According to Butler, a few more sports could also use an influx of officials.

"Field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, wrestling, for sure," Butler said. "And swimming and volleyball (officials) have age issues. The average age for one of our officials is probably around 55. "In swimming, it's probably 80 and a lot of volleyball officials are in their 70s."

That is definitely the case in District One.

"From what I've seen, field hockey and girls lacrosse have a really tough time," said longtime Neshaminy athletic director Tom Magdelinskas. "And the wrestling officials are not getting any younger, either. 

"Certain sports just have a harder time restocking."

Wear and tear on the body can obviously take a toll.

"It's tough on older officials," Dobos said. "Guys get up in age like me, and it becomes a challenge for your body and mind. I'm 53 and have been officiating for a long time.

"At least in baseball, we're the gray brigade for sure."

Afternoon games pose an issue

Another pressing issue, according to athletic directors, the assigners who oversee what games the officials go to, and officials themselves, is one that has hindered them seemingly forever: sunshine. 

For example: On a Thursday in April in District One, there were 179 athletic contests scheduled in baseball, softball, boys lacrosse, girls lacrosse and volleyball. A whopping 129 of them started before 5 p.m.

Check it out:PIAA softball championship: North Penn's Volpe a talent for the ages

"It's just tough for people to make it to games to officiate that start right after school," said Maureen Gregory, the District One female officials representative. 

"People have careers, especially a lot of the younger officials, and making it to a game in the afternoon just isn't possible. And this is not a new thing. We've been up against this for a long time because there are only so many officials that can work games at that time.

"During the playoffs, we urge schools to schedule those games at night so we can get officials to them." 

The day of the week games are scheduled also plays a role

"There are a ton of schools that want to play on Tuesdays and Thursdays," said Butler, the assigner for officials for girls and women's lacrosse in southeast Pennsylvania.

"They've always done it that way and don't really want to change and break that tradition. I've asked the schools to change things, and some leagues, like the Suburban One League and the PAC 10 (Pioneer Athletic Conference) have gone to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule and that staggering does help.

"But, some days, there's nothing you can do. One day, I had a middle school (lacrosse) game in southern Chester County, and I didn't have anybody available to go. Moving game times to later in the day would help, but that creates more problems for the schools with busing and those type of things."

What will things be like in 5 years?

Girls soccer players thank the refs after a game in York County. "Is it miserable reffing a game in the rain, cold and snow? Sure, it is, but in the end, you're helping kids. The pros of officiating definitely outweigh the cons," said Roberta Butler, the District One female officials' representative for the PIAA.

"That's a really, really scary question," Frisina said. "I just turned 62 and this is my 34th year officiating. In District 10, the average age of our officials is 55 and the reps from across the state are telling me the same thing.

"When we lose the officials that are retiring or are cutting back because they're getting older, we're not gaining them back at anywhere near the same rate. Schools are going to have to cooperate with having game days moved around and things will just be different. I don't really know what's going to happen."

For subscribers:Meet the 2021 Intelligencer/Courier Times boys volleyball All-Star teams

Butler agrees.

"I do believe there is a crisis in a lot of sports with finding officials," Butler said. "But we'll keep doing our best to find a way and keep it going.

"Is it miserable reffing a game in the rain, cold and snow? Sure, it is, but in the end, you're helping kids. The pros of officiating definitely outweigh the cons.

"You get a sense of community, you're giving back to the sport, staying fit, helping kids and you make a little money, too. That's a lot of good things that you're getting out of it."

Recruiting is a 'never-ending job'

Trying to attract new officials, according to Gebhart, is a never-ending job.

"We've tried a number of things," Gebhart said. "We provided materials like posters to every high school in Pennsylvania so maybe the seniors see it. 

"And we go into colleges, too. If the college provides a facility, we provide an instructor to talk about how to become an official."

Word of mouth also helps.

"My biggest thing in trying to get new people involved has always been the buddy system," Brady said. "If each official brought in one new person, that would be great. 

"The best recruiters are ourselves. And where we thrive are with the people that retire early. If someone retires at 55 or 60 and we can get 10 years out of them, that's great. We'll sign up a younger guy and then all of a sudden, he or she gets a job in Timbuktu, and they're gone. That happens, but you can't fault them. They're just getting started with their careers."

If officials want to branch out to other sports, Gebhart and the PIAA would be all for it.

"We have roughly 12,500 officials across the state and if a third of them would pick up another sport in addition to the one they do, that would help out an awful lot," Gebhart said.

Interested? Here's how to become a PIAA official 

The PIAA has simplified the process to the point where an applicant, who must be at least 18, can do just about everything needed to become an official from home.

"You can just go to our website (www.piaa.org), click on the officiating patch, register, apply for your government clearances, take the test and get affiliated with a (local) chapter," Gebhart said.

"There are plenty of games and, once we get all the way through COVID, things will get back to normal and there will be even more games."

The test for all sports (which can be taken at home) consists of 100 questions, and applicants need to get 75 of them or more correct to pass. The PIAA sends each applicant a rule book for his/her chosen sport to study before taking the test.

Drew Markol: dmarkol@theintell.com; @dmarkol