EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part IV 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. 1. Part III was published on Dec. 18.
MANSFIELD — If new Ohio High School Athletic Association Executive Director Doug Ute wants to recruit the next generation of high school officials, he ought to feature Jalen Reese in his public relations campaign.
The 2014 Mansfield Senior graduate is exactly what the OHSAA wants — and needs.
A three-sport standout at Mansfield Senior, and the football program’s career passing leader, Reese played college football at the University of Toledo before finishing his career at Division II IUP in Indiana, Pennsylvania in 2019. He began officiating basketball at his father’s urging and already is a regular at the junior varsity level in his first season.
“My dad was the catalyst. He had been pushing me to get my license for about a year and and I finally got it in August,” said Reese, who completed his undergraduate degree in finance and accounting at Toledo before doing his graduate work at IUP. “The reason I was reluctant to do it is because I always thought it was something older guys did when they were about to retire.
"That was the stigma, at least from my point of view.”
Reese isn’t wrong.
While data on the average age of Ohio high school varsity officials isn’t readily available, empirical evidence suggests the pool of officials isn’t getting any younger.
“I’ve been officiating for a few months now and I can tell you I’m the youngest person by far,” the 25-year-old Reese said.
Even before he became executive director of the OHSAA, Ute was thinking of creative ways to attract younger officials during his 11 years as superintendent of Newark City Schools.
“One of the things I got into at Newark was talking to some of the students who maybe didn’t have the athletic ability to be on a team, but they had a high interest in sports, and officiating could be an avenue for them,” said Ute, a 1980 Clear Fork graduate. “It’s also a heckuva part-time job. I mean you could get all the work you wanted, and stay connected to the sport.”
Jordan Cohen, Executive Director of Protect the Game, has found another innovative solution to the official shortage problem. Cohen’s organization recruits and trains military veterans to officiate sports.
“I’ve been assigning high school ball for almost 30 years now and this is a nationwide problem. It’s not specific to one state,” said Cohen, who lives in northwest Indiana. “It’s the combination of a lot of things. It’s the way the parents act, that’s a big thing. Another is young people have other things to do.”
Protect the Game trains officials in baseball, softball, volleyball, basketball and lacrosse. Cohen and his team recruit at military job fairs and bring in former professional officials to provide training.
“We started it in 2019 and we had 27 people go through our training,” Cohen said. “Once they are recruited, we provide the training and then we connect them with a local assigner and get them going.”
The organization also helps outfit its new officials. Equipment, regardless of sport, can cost hundreds of dollars and normally comes out of the official’s pocket.
“We get donations and reach out to people to donate their older equipment that is in good shape,” Cohen said. “We also have a few companies that we have worked with who have donated equipment and uniforms for veterans.”
Protect the Game currently provides officials to youth sports, but the organization will help officials get certified by state high school athletic associations and sanctioning bodies.
“They still have to get certified by their state high school athletic association, but we are working with some other groups who will help them get their state certification if high school sports is the way they want to go,” Cohen said. “If they just want to stay in the youth realm, we help them with their local certification.”
It’s not unusual for officials to begin in youth sports before transitioning to the high school level. The rise of competitive summer leagues and travel teams has created an even greater need.
“There are more games that need officials than ever before when you insert the amount of travel and recreation games that are being played,” said Ontario Youth Sports Director Kenn Spencer. “Travel and competitive sports have become a business and the amount of money parents are investing in their athlete is unbelievable, so naturally younger officials have more pressure to officiate at a higher level. This pressure can lead to attrition.
"If I train 20 14- to 18-year-old officials, 14 will drop out after one season and most will blame pressure. New officials don’t have time to make mistakes.”
As for Reese, he hasn’t had any problem finding work during his first season in stripes.
“I’ve had to turn a lot of games down because of my job,” Reese said. “I could probably do a game every night if my job allowed.”
That number stands to increase after Reese becomes certified to call varsity games. He will have to go through an evaluation before he gets his Class 1 license. That process doesn’t happen overnight.
“Maybe that is one of the ways to attract younger people to officiating, figure out a different path to that Class 1 license,” Reese said. “Guys don’t want to do middle school or freshman games for four or five years.
“At the same time, you’ve got to make sure they are capable officials.”
Longtime north central Ohio official Jerry Czernewski agreed. Most young officials aren’t ready to move up the ladder as quickly as they would like, Czernewski said.
“When I started, I worked five years before I got my first assigned varsity game,” said Czernewski, who is in his fourth decade of officiating high school sports. “I worked a varsity game my second year, but it was a situation where one of the varsity officials had an accident on the way to the game. Me and the other JV guy flipped to see who would not work because we were both scared to death. It was his third year and my second year and neither one of us really wanted to do it.”
Ohio Cardinal Commissioner and longtime assigner Ron Dessecker regularly pairs inexperienced officials with veterans when making assignments. Easing officials into the higher levels of competition reduces attrition.
“I try to incorporate the young people slowly so not to get them overwhelmed,” Dessecker said. “When I make assignments, I try to get an experienced official with a first- or second-year official so they don’t get run over.
“There are good young officials out there. We need to provide them with the support they need to keep them involved.”