EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third part in a continuing Solutions Journalism series looking at a shortage on referees in high school sports. Part I was published on Dec. 7. Part II was published on Dec. 14.
MANSFIELD — Molly Moore doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer, but the Madison graduate has been smashing through barriers for the past two decades.
If Moore, one of the most highly regarded high school basketball officials in the state, can inspire young women to follow her lead, then she will gladly carry the torch.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association is facing a critical shortage of officials and the overwhelming majority of officials certified to work varsity games, regardless of sport, is male.
“What is strange and what I don’t understand is the shortage of women officials,” said Moore, who played college basketball at Malone in the 1990s. “We only have four women in our association and really only three are still active. I don’t get that because we can call a good game just like the boys can.
"I don’t understand why we can’t get more women into officiating.”
Moore began officiating shortly after her playing career ended. Like all young officials, she cut her teeth working middle school and freshman games before working her way up the ladder.
“I started getting varsity girls games and then I would call assigners and say, ‘Just come watch me work and see what I can do.’ Then you have people who can vouch for you,” Moore said. “I’ve been blessed because I’ve had wonderful mentors who have helped me.
"They would talk to assigners and tell them, ‘You need to get Molly on the boys side.’ If you have good people around you who want to help you succeed, you can cross over.”
Moore works some of the most prestigious athletic conferences in Ohio, including the Three Rivers Athletic Conference in northwest Ohio and the Ohio Capital Conference, the suburban Columbus mega-conference that includes 32 schools spread across five central Ohio counties.
“Columbus has a lot of women officials. I don’t understand why we can’t get more women involved in the Richland County area,” Moore said. “I talk to girls and tell them they can stay in the game and earn a little extra money. I try to recruit that way.”
New OHSAA executive director Doug Ute, a 1980 Clear Fork graduate, will take all the recruiting help he can get. According to statistics provided by the OHSAA, there were more than 2,000 fewer certified officials during the 2019-20 school year than there were just a decade earlier.
“That’s something that has been looked at for the past three to five years,” said Ute, who took over the post in September. “One of the things I would like to do is have a mentor program, where a great official like Charlie Scott from your area — I’ve known Charlie for years — can we have an official like him work with some younger officials?
“I don't mean have Charlie work with a first-year kid at the Lexington-Ontario game, but maybe over the summer have Charlie mentor some of the younger officials and work with them so they see his approach to it.”
Perhaps the most pressing problem the OHSAA must address is the continued graying of the officiating pool. As aging officials retire, there is no one to fill the void. The dilemma only stands to get worse as older officials age out of the position.
Ute said COVID-19 hasn't impacted officiating around the state in general, but that could change if things don't improve by spring, where track officials are older on the age curve than other sports.
However, in Richland County, it may take a toll in swimming this winter.
“The ranks of officials are getting older and the younger people are not stepping up,” said Dick Henry, a former athletic director at Mansfield Senior and Marion Harding and a high school swimming official for the past 42 years. “The average age of swimming officials in Richland County is over 70 years. I have yet to see any 20- to 30-year-olds on the deck.
“This year especially is tough because several of us who are older and have compromised medical conditions have chosen not to officiate due to COVID. Being a swimming official in a pool is like being in a petri dish.”
The 74-year-old Henry said there is plenty of blame to go around in the official shortage crisis.
“The OHSAA has not been very proactive in securing new officials. Then there are league commissioners who are contracting with officials five or six years out,” Henry said. “The younger officials see this happening and they start to wonder what chance they have of getting high-profile games when the older guys lock those games in five years in advance. The younger guys say, ‘They don’t need me.’ And to a certain degree they are right.
“Another thing I’m seeing is some younger people are getting into officiating because their kids are involved. What’s going to happen in four or five years after their kids are out? Are they going to continue to officiate?”
While there is no clear solution, identifying young people with a love for the games is a start. In short, the high school sports community needs more Molly Moores.
“Why do I officiate basketball? Why do I travel all over Ohio? I do it for the love of the game,” said Moore, who was selected Ohio’s girls basketball official of the year last year. “We need to find younger women and men who have this love for the game.”