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The right call: Local officials happy with OSAA calendar

Rogue Valley officiating commissioners are both pleased and relieved with the Oregon School Activities Association’s modification of the high school sports calendar for the 2020-21 school year.

They are pleased to have direction so they can set their own schedules to provide game officials for the contests, which will be condensed into three eight-week seasons beginning with the first game dates in January.

And they are relieved the governing body, which announced the new calendar last week as it navigates COVID-19 concerns, didn’t stack seasons on top of others, which would have created a nightmarish scenario in trying to allocate officials for all sports.

There is only slight overlapping with the final week of each season — called a culminating week, reserved for some sort of postseason play — and practice weeks for the next season.

The traditional winter sports season of basketball, wrestling and swimming will be the first, followed by what are usually the fall sports, then the spring sports, which will run into the last week of June.

The only week in which contest dates conflict are the culminating week for football and the first week of spring games for baseball, softball, track, tennis and golf.

When talk around the water cooler turns to the resurrection of sports, seldom is the role of game officials taken into account — even though the contests can’t go on without them.

And that role is murky, given that officiating numbers have declined over the years and some states are jamming sports into condensed periods in 2021.

Vern Loy, commissioner of the Rogue Valley Basketball Officials Association, cited California, which moved its sports into 2021 but did not separate its seasons as distinctly as did Oregon. Its spring calendar is full with overlapping sports: basketball, soccer, wrestling, baseball, softball and track among them.

“There are a number of sports here that have the same officials,” said Loy. “I worried a great deal about, how are we going to do that? Is anyone at all thinking about those things, along with the three-sport athletes and the safety of the kids and coaches and whatever?

“I did take a good sigh of relief when I saw that basketball and wrestling were competing against each other, if you will. We don’t have a single wrestling official in the basketball cadre, so all is good as far as I’m concerned.”

Raynee Wilson, with the Southern Oregon Soccer Officials Association, had an inkling, after speaking with others in the know, that the OSAA would attempt to separate the seasons as much as possible.

“That’s what we thought the OSAA would do because it was the option that made the most sense,” said Wilson, who also officiates basketball.

The popularity of soccer, from youth leagues to college programs, creates a big demand for officials.

Wilson has more than 100 officials at her disposal, and many of them do youth games but not high school contests. She had three dozen referees for high school games last year, “and that was not enough,” she said.

Wilson and other officiating commissioners around the state took part in a Zoom meeting with the OSAA on July 27 to share their concerns.

For the past few years, she has had to ask schools to rearrange contest days so she would have enough referees to handle the weekly load. More schools played on typical off days, such as Monday and Wednesday, to accommodate her.

Last year, some schools made those allowances on their own.

“They know we want to service their games accordingly,” said Wilson, “and if we don’t have enough people, it’s stressful on us if we can’t have the right people on the right games.”

Placing soccer, a fall sport, in a season with a non-traditional fall sport, such as basketball, would have further taxed the ability to get games covered.

That factored into the equation as the OSAA sorted out its approach.

“They know, and we voiced our concerns,” said Wilson, “well, what happens if we have sports overlapping. It was like, shoot, how am I going to balance basketball and soccer if they put soccer in the winter.

“They can’t have their games without us.”

John Campbell, commissioner of the Rogue Valley Football Officials Association, participated in the meeting with the OSAA.

“From the football side, the big message was, please do not overlap the seasons,” he said. “That was one of my big concerns because then we’re going to be looking at shortages to cover sports and high school athletics. They didn’t do that, and from that end, I think it’s good.”

He has a dozen or more officials who also do baseball, he said. Overlapping seasons would have forced them — like multiple-sport athletes — to choose between sports.

It’s hard to tell what affect the pandemic will have on the officiating ranks.

Loy, who had 39 basketball referees at the end of last season, knows of a half-dozen who won’t return for various reasons. Wilson said several of her officials were on the verge of retiring, and the long period between last year’s prep season and the next one might nudge them away.

As it is, there has been a decline in prep sports officials across the nation in recent years. Newly hired officials last only a few years in many cases, according to studies, and when older ones retire, there’s not enough young blood to replenish the pool.

An article by The Aspen Institute said the average age of officials jumped from 20 to 42 between 1976 and 2016, and that there are more officials over 60 than under 30.

The older set is more likely to have underlying medical conditions, a red flag as it pertains to the virus.

On the flip side, economic hardship brought on by the coronavirus might motivate people to take up officiating to help make ends meet.

“A lot of people are on unemployment,” said Wilson. “A lot of people are getting cut back on their regular jobs. Maybe we can use that as incentive to get more people to referee because it’s some extra cash.”

In The Aspen Institute article, Barry Mano, founder and president of the 27,000-member National Association of Sports Officials, said officiating numbers have historically climbed during economic downturns.

“You’re looking for a source of income,” he said. “We would expect an uptick in officials, but you can’t say it blindly because of the COVID overlay.”

When the OSAA gave each season its own slot after the first of the year, it provided a blueprint for associations to work with.

Officials are required to attend a set number of meetings, go through training and pay registration and association fees.

Officiating commissioners now have a starting point as they recruit for their sports and prepare for the seasons.

“I think we were all waiting for some answers as to what we were going to be doing,” said Campbell, “and now we have some direction. We’ll be able to work around and schedule around training and getting people registered and that sort of thing.”

He believes the OSAA’s solution was appropriate.

“With all that’s going on, I think they probably came to the best conclusion they could have,” said Campbell, “knowing full well there were going to people who were going to be unhappy about it, especially when you’re talking about no real playoffs and no real state championships. People start getting upset. That’s a pretty big deal.”

A number of questions remain regarding middle school and club sports — neither of which is governed by the OSAA — and how they will fit into the mix.

“We have no idea what they’re discussing and when they’re going to start up, or if they’re going to start up at all,” said Loy, who noted sub-varsity games also require officials. “Every association is going back through and looking at calendars to see when to get their people ready.

“There’s so many unanswered questions and so many loose ends with the officiating.”

He’s confident, however, games will get taken care of.

“All in all, it will work out,” said Loy, “because all the commissioners down here, at least, are very cooperative and we share and communicate well. I think everything will work out.”

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-76-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

Umpire Travis Reese makes the call in a recent Medford Mustangs game.