The referee on the baseline had been hearing complaints from the crowd all night.
Experienced refs know how to block out the complaints, but in the second half one of the voices seemed closer than before. As the official turned his head, he saw a parent from the home team voicing his displeasure over a call.
The official, a longtime veteran, stayed calm, urging the parent to return to their seat, which he eventually did without further incident.
The situation was defused quickly in large part due to the ref’s experience.
“Luckily there was a veteran varsity official on that game who kept his cool and told the fan to get out of there,” said Peter Carroll, assignment commissioner for IAABO Board 9. “A less experienced guy might not have handled that as well. Some of the parents have gotten really bad. That’s what these (referees) are out there dealing with and it’s why we need experienced officials.”
High school basketball in Connecticut is approaching a crisis as each year fewer quality officials are available to work varsity boys and girls games.
This shortage has forced local boards to keep officials on the court who are past their primes, sometimes to the detriment of the game and the players.
The lack of good, experienced referees has been a festering concern for years, with most local boards unable to adequately replace aging officials with younger ones.
The problem is becoming so acute that leagues are working together on schedule changes.
“We will have staffing problems in the coming years,” said Buddy Chernovetz, president of Board 10, which services New Haven County. “Age is the No. 1 issue facing high school referees in the state. We aren’t struggling in a sense of overall numbers. We have enough officials, but numbers do not reflect quality of officials.
“Yes, there are guys who are not able to do some varsity games anymore because they can’t keep up. My job is to try and make sure we have capable referees on the appropriate games. Replacing guys like that is difficult. They have established themselves as quality referees and the coaches know them.”
Board 10 has 353 members and Fairfield County’s Board 9 has 290. But each has different issues when it comes to keeping good officials at the varsity level.
According to Board 9 officials, Fairfield County’s transient nature takes referees away from the area.
In the past, most referees were teachers, police officers or firefighters, but now they come from all walks of life, including corporate jobs in the county.
Those professions include the risk of being transferred to other areas, meaning referees who cut their teeth in Board 9 end up refereeing elsewhere or not at all.
Another problem in Fairfield County is referees keeping their families in a school district for a quality education but then moving to a less expensive part of Connecticut, or out of the state entirely, once their children are out of high school.
Board 9 brings in about 20 new referees a year but few of those go on to become varsity referees, with some opting to only work youth, travel or AAU games and others quitting.
On Board 10, for about every 10 officials who retire, five new bodies replace them. Not all of these new refs want to become varsity officials.
Several experienced varsity referees, who spoke to Hearst Connecticut Media for this story on condition of anonymity, said many of the newer referees have no desire to work their way up to becoming varsity referees.
Referees who have been on the job 20-plus years said when they began all they wanted was to eventually be calling a conference or state championship game and would do anything necessary to accomplish that goal.
That usually meant putting in at least five years on the sub-varsity level before they got a taste of varsity action, and learning all the rules and nuances of the game.
That has changed.
“Working games is a process and the only way you get better is experience. Referees need three to four years of experience working JV and freshman games, depending on the individual,” Chernovetz said. “It has become harder to hold on to young officials because a lot of them don’t want to put in the time. Everyone wants to start on varsity and it’s hard to get guys to buy in, but learning takes time.”
If these younger referees don’t want to work the varsity, there are plenty of other options.
In some suburban youth leagues, referees can make as much money as they would from a sub-varsity game with fewer headaches.
A sub-varsity referee who wished to remain anonymous said that while desire is part of the problem, being able to get out of work to get to freshman or JV games is difficult for some officials.
If a person does not leave work until 5 p.m., a 4 p.m. freshman game is impossible to get to, making it difficult for younger referees to get the experience needed to move up to varsity games.
That concern is not lost on the local boards or the CIAC.
“The new officials contact on each board, the board leaders and the CIAC recognize this challenge, and it sends a loud and clear message that we must be proactive and ramp up the recruitment and retention efforts,” said Joe Tonelli, the director of the CIAC Officials Association. “In past years, many officials were schoolteachers, but that’s no longer the case.”
Younger referees are learning on the job, and just as freshman and JV basketball is for developing players, it is also the living classroom for officials.
That is what can be so frustrating about working one of those contests for a young referee.
“Especially on freshman/JV level, when they’re young and coming up, the coaches on those teams are young, too, but they need to take it easy,” Carroll said. “It’s not the NCAA or NBA here. They’re trying to advance and get better, but they’re going to make mistakes just like the young coaches are going to make mistakes. If we don’t have the younger generation of referees, it would be hard to keep up with the games because the kids and the games are quicker these days.”
As the referee is attempting to become a better official, they are being yelled at by not just coaches, but more and more by fans.
And many fans at freshman and JV games are adults, generally players’ family members.
Rather than understanding that the referee is learning just like the players, some of these parents abuse the referees, which is dissuading some from continuing up the ranks.
“One of the biggest problems I’ve seen in recent years is these young guys go and be criticized by parents and lately they’ve been getting more and more criticism from parents and fans,” Chernovetz said. “I’ve had guys telling me about fights between parents at a middle school game this season. These kids are supposed to be learning about sportsmanship. When you’re starting out as an official you’re young and learning and it’s frustrating when people are so critical.”
WORKING THEM IN
The wait to get on varsity games has come down from five years to two or three, depending on the referee.
The officials get rated and, if they score well, by the end of the third season of working sub-varsity will be called up to do some low-level varsity games at the end of the season, working alongside an experienced official.
They can become full-time varsity in their fourth season if they meet the criteria.
That plan sits fine with most coaches in the area who see the need to get younger referees on the floor to keep up with the fast pace of play on the varsity level.
“Do they need to get younger? Yes, but there is a lack of referees coming up and they should be giving those guys that want (it) a shot at lower-level varsity games,” Wilton coach Joel Geriak said.
“Coaches will get on young guys for not being ready but they have to learn sometime. Some of the guys out there now can’t keep up anymore. Some of them are injured, that’s different, but there are a few who are not able to do it. You can see them walking, not being in position, and the coaches get frustrated.”
Board 9 officials work in the FCIAC and SWC and it has become increasingly difficult to properly staff both leagues on Tuesday and Friday nights when most of the games are played.
Scheduling becomes even more complicated as snow forces postponements and more games pile up on the same day.
One temporary solution being hammered out by Board 9 and the commissioners of the FCIAC and SWC is staggering schedules so the two leagues are not playing on the same night.
The cross-league cooperation to come to this solution is not ideal for many athletic directors or for the leagues themselves, but they realize some sort of adjustment is necessary to ensure quality referees are working varsity games.
“We’re working with the South West Conference on that right now for next year,” FCIAC Commissioner Dave Schultz said. “It doesn’t work well because wrestling sits in the middle of the week and a majority of the schools only have one gym. Basketball teams will not want to go Monday and Friday then play again Monday. It’s a problem. We’re going to move games, but it’s not ideal. We’ll move two weeks and they’ll move two weeks. This has to be done because there’s a shortage of varsity officials.”
Playing girls and boys games on different nights was never an option, according to Schultz, as that would require far too much juggling of gymnasium schedules and affect practice times for the girls and boys teams and any others using the gyms in the winter like wrestling, cheerleading, unified sports or outside organizations.
Board 10 is in preliminary discussions with the leagues they service about possibly moving boys and girls games to different nights or finding other temporary solutions to staffing problems.
CIAC is not directly involved with hiring officials, but is addressing the needs of the local boards to bring in and keep more young officials.
On the CIAC website there is a link to a brochure titled “Get in the Game” which outlines the benefits of becoming a high school official.
“We’re often the first contact for new candidates and we then refer the prospective official to the new officials’ contacts for the board in their area of the state,” Tonelli said. “It will also be a major topic at the state-wide meeting where reps from all boards will be in attendance. To keep this in perspective, it’s important to note that basketball has the largest number of officials than any other sport and they’re holding their own but most assigners will tell you that on some days, especially when there are postponements, they’re stretched pretty thin.”
The CIAC is also working with coaches, athletic directors and leagues to ensure there are a sufficient number of officials to service the number of games being played, according to Tonelli.
One of the ideas being considered is introducing officiating classes at local high schools where students can get physical education credit while learning how to officiate multiple sports.
This idea was supported by most of the people interviewed for this story.
This is already in practice on the college level at the University of Connecticut, where Associate Director of UConn Recreation Bhavin Parekh has been instructing students on officiating for 15 years.
It is not a class for a credit at UConn but rather a program to train and certify officials through practical experience.
Those students get paid minimum wage to referee intramural games at the school, gaining on-court experience while also learning the written rules of various sports.
The highest level of intramural basketball at UConn is often greater than the speed of a varsity high school game, giving the young officials experience that cannot be had outside of the school.
“Working that amount of games can’t be duplicated. It’s extremely valuable,” said Parekh, also an official on Board 10. “They are light-years ahead of anyone else coming on to a high school board for the first time. I know what young officials go through, and getting that much repetition on the court is so helpful.”
Those basketball officials who have come out of the UConn program hit the ground running in the officiating ranks with sometimes more than 100 games on under their belts, excellent mechanics and the ability to ace the written test.
More than 10 people from UConn’s program are now working on Board 10.
Over the last six years, the program has produced 15 referees currently working at various levels of NCAA basketball, as well.
Parekh feels similar programs would be successful at other state colleges and would be a huge boost to the recruitment of officials.
HOW MUCH ARE THEY PAYING YOU?
The underlying theme for all referees, young or old, experienced or green, is a passion for the game.
That may be the thing people who yell at an official to “Call it both ways” or “How much are they paying you?” fail to realize.
Because while “How much are they paying you?” is referencing the official taking a bribe, the actual amount they are paid hardly seems worth the abuse many referees take on a nightly basis.
Varsity officials on Board 9 make $90 a game while sub-varsity games pay $62.
“The officials work very hard. You can’t do this for any other reason than you love basketball,” Carroll said. “You’re not doing it for the money.”