EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first part in a continuing Solutions Journalism series looking at a shortage on referees in high school sports. Part II will be published on Dec. 14.
MANSFIELD — Jerry Czernewski has been officiating high school sports for more than 40 years and the exodus of officials and umpires he’s witnessed during the past decade has left him more than a little alarmed.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association shares his concerns.
According to statistics provided by the OHSAA, there were 14,651 high school-certified officials for 14 sanctioned sports during the 2019-20 school year. That marks a significant decline from the 2010-11 school year, when there were 16,629 officials for 12 sports.
The number of incoming officials has continued to shrink during the past decade. During the 2010-11 school year, there were a total of 2,876 new officials. That number dwindled to 1,951 last year.
“It’s a serious problem,” said Czernewski, a 1966 Mansfield Senior graduate. “I don’t think there’s one single factor. A lot of things go into it, but it’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Part of the blame, according to an open letter from the OHSAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations in January of 2019, is the unruly behavior of the fans in the stands.
“Your passion is admired, and your support of the hometown team is needed,” the letter’s co-authors wrote. “But so is your self control. Yelling, screaming and berating the officials humiliates your child, annoys those sitting around you, embarrasses your child’s school and is the primary reason Ohio has an alarming shortage of high school officials.”
The 73-year-old Czernewski has been on both sides. In fact, it’s why he got into officiating basketball in the fist place.
“My oldest son played basketball at John Sherman Junior High and my wife and I went over to watch him,” Czernewski said. “As happens frequently, only one guy showed up to officiate the game. Me being a typical parent, gave him all kinds of crap. My wife got so upset that she moved (seats). After the game she said, ‘If you’re so good at it, go down and help the poor guy out.’
“The following year there was a blurb in the paper about an official’s class at OSU-Mansfield run by Russ Pitts so I signed up for it.”
Czernewski essentially became an apprentice to Pitts, a 2017 OHSAA Officials Hall of Fame inductee.
“Back in those days, the varsity officials took the JV guys along. Each of the varsity guys would work a half with us,” Czernewski said. “They would pay you 15 or 20 bucks to help them out or otherwise they would have to work the JV games.”
Czernewski has officiated basketball for 40 years, umpired baseball for 42 years and officiated football for 38 seasons. Fans’ behavior, he said, has deteriorated over the years.
“Fans have a lot to do with the shortage of officials,” he said. “I remember, it’s been a few years ago, we had some incidents in the Mansfield area where coaches put their hands on officials.
“It keeps getting worse. It used to be just an occasional irate dad. Now mom is just as angry and just as vocal. Unless a fan gets personal with you, you are not supposed to pay attention and a lot of times it is hard to do.”
Ohio Cardinal Conference commissioner Ron Dessecker can relate. Dessecker officiated football for 36 years and umpired baseball for 31 years.
“The people who want to become officials go to a game and see the abuse given and they say, ‘I don’t want any of this stuff.’ I’m normally talking about basketball, but it can be any sport,” said Dessecker, who is also the secretary and treasurer of the Wayne County Officials Association, an organization that encompasses Wayne, Ashland, Holmes, Medina, Summit and Stark counties. “They see some of the abuse that goes on and they don’t want to have anything to do with it.
“I try to encourage officials as much as I can because it takes a lot of guts to step out onto a field or onto a floor and make a decision that 50 percent of the people are going to disagree with.”
One of Dessecker’s responsibilities as the OCC commissioner is scheduling officials for conference games. The pool of qualified candidates, he said, has continued to shallow.
“In my area, I have 72 basketball officials and that sounds like a lot,” Dessecker said. “But that is for six counties and then you look at the number of schools that are in those counties and they need officials for middle school basketball or junior varsity baseball. Sometimes you look at a JV baseball or softball game and there’s only one umpire out there. It’s tough.”
So what’s the solution?
“If you ask an official, they will say, ‘Pay more money.’ Well, that only solves part of the problem,” said Czernewski, who serves as secretary of the area basketball and baseball/ softball associations. “You need support from the OHSAA. You need support from the schools.
“Retention is the problem. Are those guys going to stick around?”
The first step, Dessecker said, is to show appreciation to the people making the calls on the field or blowing the whistles inside the gym.
“We need to treat the officials the right way. If we treat them the right way, they’ll want to come back.”