PIAA launches 'officials appreciation week' as it deals with shortage of referees

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

Officially speaking, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association wants everyone to be nice to anyone in black and white stripes this week.

The PIAA has deemed this week as "PIAA officials appreciation week" across the state. The governing body for high school sports in Pennsylvania recently sent all schools a memo about the week and offered suggestions to schools on actions to possibly take to show appreciation for officials.

The suggestions include: make an announcement at school; introduce officials on PA systems at fields and stadiums; provide parking spaces, Gatorade, water and snacks to officials; have each athlete individually thank each official before the start or conclusion of a contest; invite spouses of officials to games and provide complimentary tickets.

A natural question: Why is the PIAA doing this? Pat Gebhart, assistant executive director of the PIAA and supervisor of officials for the organization, said it's because the officials deserve an overdue thank you and also because it might help the PIAA in its ongoing efforts to recruit more officials for all sports. Like many states in the country, Pennsylvania has been hit with a shortage of officials the past few years, in some sports more than others. The PIAA recognizes the problem and is trying to act on it.

The PIAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations have reported in the past that the No. 1 reason officials give up the job is abuse from fans and even coaches.

"In an effort to show our appreciation, and hopefully the member schools also showing appreciation, our board of directors felt it was time to say thank you," Gebhart said. "We appreciate the officials, but don't often say it. Sometimes, that gets lost in the message."

The PIAA already has emailed electronic thank you cards to all officials for fall sports. The PIAA also will have "officials appreciation week" in the winter ( Jan. 3-9) and spring (April 3-9).

"We know a lot of schools are realizing the crunch in officials, especially at JV and sub-varsity contests. The importance of officials has been raised in many people's eyes the past few years," Gebhart said.

Gebhart said the PIAA has about 13,000 registered officials for all sports, but that's about 1,000 less than just a few years ago. He said the sports of soccer, field hockey, volleyball and lacrosse are especially short on officials, and especially in Southeastern Pennsylvania. He said the shortage of officials has not hit football and basketball as hard.

"You wouldn't think soccer would be short on officials, but they are," he said. "I would love to say we are where we need to be, but we need to face facts. We're not. Athletic directors are realizing that some JV games have to be canceled or postponed because they can't get officials.

"Two things came into play with this the past two years. First, the year 2020 was the five-year anniversary of officials getting their clearances and they had to renew their clearances. Many folks just said they didn't want to go through getting all their clearances again and weren't going to officiate anymore. Then COVID hit. Many of our officials are senior officials and those folks didn't want to put themselves in peril. This was before vaccinations, so they just walked away. So with those two things, we took a double hit."

Gebhart said the National Federation is conducting an officials recruiting program. The PIAA is doing the same through social media and the PIAA has lightened some rules for officials. For example, officials don't have to attend as many mandatory meetings and they can attend meetings through Zoom calls.

"I think there is hope we can get some more officials," Gebhart said.