By Curt Conrad, Staff Reporter Richland Ohio Source
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.”
MANSFIELD — J.T. Reese wanted to give back to the game that has given him so much, so he exchanged his coaching clipboard for a striped shirt.
Reese served as Mansfield Senior’s boys basketball coach from 2012 to 2017, piloting north central Ohio’s most tradition-rich program to a 76-47 record and a 2014 district title in his five seasons. When his time on the Tygers’ bench came to an end, Reese quickly transitioned from coach to referee.
“I always have loved the game and I still wanted to be around the game,” said Reese, who starred at St. Peter’s in the mid-1990s and whose three children were standouts for the Tygers in the 2010s. “A guy I know said I should give officiating a try, so I did and I liked it.”
Although he’s still a relative newcomer in terms of officiating high school basketball, Reese hasn’t had any trouble finding work. A shortage of high school officials has put Reese and other young refs on the fast track.
“I don’t have any problems getting games and this is only my second year,” Reese said. “I think I have 75 games right now.”
Logan Slavinski can relate. The 2011 Clear Fork graduate began umpiring baseball and softball in the spring of 2016.
“Typically they like you to do JV and freshman games your first couple of years. You have to go through an evaluation process with a more experienced official and they rate you and promote you to do varsity,” said Slavinski, who played college football at Ashland University and is Mansfield Senior football coach Chioke Bradley’s offensive coordinator. “Because of the shortage, I did some spot duty my second year and every year since then I’ve gotten varsity games just because there are so few of us.”
Slavinski joined the officiating ranks during a particularly lean time. According to statistics provided by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, the class sizes for baseball and softball umpires during the 2015-16 school year were smaller than at any period in the past decade.
According to the OHSAA, the number of active baseball umpires has shrunk from 4,248 during the spring of 2011 to 3,369 during the 2019-20 school year. The number of active softball umpires hit a 10-year low last spring (2,191).
Baseball and softball aren’t the only high school sports hemorrhaging officials. It’s a problem across the board.
“For our area, it’s really difficult getting new guys to come in,” said football official Herman Huffman. “Our association is lucky if they get one guy a year. When I started our association was in the mid- to high-30s. It’s probably in the low-20s now. There’s not enough guys to go around.
"You go to those meetings meetings and there are a lot of guys with gray hair."
A Loudonville High School graduate, Huffman has officiated football for the past 18 years. The recently-concluded 2020 season was his last.
“I have too many injury issues with knees and ankles,” Huffman said. “I’ve been battling that all year, plus my kid wants to play pee-wee football next year and I want to help coach.
“I don’t know what else you can do to lure guys in. It really is a time-consuming thing if you want to be as good as you can be. There’s local meeting and state meetings and then there’s officiating games. The more games you do, the better you get. When I first started, I was doing 40 or 50 games a year. I was working Tuesday through Saturday every single day of the week.”
Time isn’t the only investment scaring away young officials. There are real costs associated with officiating, including membership dues and out-of-pocket equipment expenses.
“People don’t realize that to be an official you have to pay for your yearly licenses to be certified,” Slavinski said. “You have to pay for your own equipment and that stuff isn’t cheap. Trying to come up with some ways to alleviate some of those costs for you people would help.”
The first step, Slavinski said, is finding a way to recruit potential officials in the first place.
“I’m a part of the Ashland Umpires Association and it’s something we’ve talked about as an association, working with the Ashland University to create an elective class,” Slavinski said. “Going into college and getting kids who might not be college athletes but participated in sports in high school, I think that is a good idea. That is a way they can stay involved in sports and make some money.”
Attracting and retaining new officials isn’t a problem specific to Ohio. It’s a nationwide dilemma exacerbated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“Every state is having the same issues and it’s only gotten worse during the last year because of COVID-19,” said Ohio Cardinal Conference commissioner and longtime football and baseball official Ron Dessecker. “There’s no easy fix.”
The one silver lining of the health crisis, at least as far as longtime official and course instructor Jerry Czernewski is concerned, is the shift to virtual officiating classes.
“They are experimenting with taking classes online, which is a plus,” said Czernewski, who has officiated high school sports for 40 years. “A couple of people I’ve talked to in the northwest —the Bowling Green and Toledo area — that are doing that are having some success with it. Their numbers actually went up a little bit.”
Dessecker said high school coaches should share in the responsibility of attracting new officials.
“I got a phone call a couple of years ago from a volleyball coach who is not affiliated with the OCC. Her game was canceled that afternoon and she was just beside herself. She asked how the OCC could get officials but her assigner couldn’t,” Dessecker said. “I told her I worked two years in advance in volleyball because you have to.
“Then I asked, ‘How many of your former player have gone into officiating?’ And she stopped in her tracks. It’s a big question mark why more former players don’t get involved, but it’s something we need to figure out because this problem isn’t going away.”