Officials take a verbal beating, but still love what they do
Mike Reinhart has been a high school official for more than three decades.
But he admitted he still has moments where he’s in awe.
A few years ago, the Hopewell-Loudon graduate and New Riegel resident was in Toledo to referee a postseason basketball game. Before the contest, he met up with then-Toledo Whitmer star, 6-foot-8 Nigel Hayes.
“I shake his hand, and it was twice as big as mine,” Reinhart said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I’m glad I don’t have to toss the ball tonight.”
Officiating games of future NBA players — Hayes played at Wisconsin before brief stints with the Lakers, Raptors and Kings — is one thing.
But Reinhart clearly loves what he does. He officiates high school football, basketball, baseball and softball, and also works in college football.
And he doesn’t plan on stopping.
“It’s getting involved in the games, as you get older you can still be involved with the actual sporting event,” Reinhart said. “Basketball gets me exercise in the winter, that’s a bonus. Football keeps me moving. There’s just something about each sport that draws in, each one of them. I just keep plugging away.”
While Reinhart is a veteran official, Seneca East graduate Joe Roth is relatively new. He’s been officiating baseball and football for five years, basketball three years.
“I love it. I’ve always been a sports fanatic,” said Roth, who was playing baseball and football for the Tigers not too long ago. “I’ve enjoyed sports when I was growing up. I love being around sports. To me it’s just a really fun hobby, good exercise. If I can give back to the communities and the schools, I’d definitely do it.”
Reinhart and Roth sound like they’ll continue being officials for years.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association needs more like them.
The OHSAA has seen a steady decline in the number of officials for its sports.
According to recent articles by Mike Dyer of WCPO.com, the organization had a more than 14,900 officials for the 2018-19 school year. Eight years ago, the number of officials was more than 16,600. There was an overall uptick this past season, but many sports still saw declines.
That’s a substantial drop, and it has consequences.
“I think where fans kind of notice that most is if they’re basketball fans going to a JV game,” Reinhart said.
That’s because with fewer officials, Reinhart said those that are new can get moved up quicker, perhaps before they are ready.
“There was a natural growth there,” he said. “There are guys now that have they’re second year in, that are knocking on the door, going, ‘Hey, I got my varsity license.’ And you’re thinking, ‘That’s great, but I watched you work. You aren’t polished. And that’s one of the things newer officials struggle with, is, they don’t realize they aren’t polished. Their mechanics aren’t convincing.”
Beau Rugg, the OHSAA’s Director of Officiating and Sport Management, said it’s not just an Ohio issue, it’s nationwide.
“We’re probably better off than some states, but still, some sports are much more critical than others,” he said. “Soccer and lacrosse are two sports where we really need an influx of new officials. Volleyball’s not the best, and the others are holding their own.”
Rugg said it’s not just about attracting referees and umpires. It’s about keeping them.
“People coming in is pretty good,” Rugg said. “But if we have a downtick total, that means we’re losing more than are coming in.”
And if you ask anyone why men and women don’t stay at it, one issue rushes to the forefront.
The berating officials take from fans.
“Definitely take it for what it’s worth,” Roth said. “It kind of shocked me at first. You always hear these stories on the news and stuff like that, but experiencing it first-hand, you learn to grow thick skin.”
Of course, officials have taken heat for as long as there have been sporting events. But Reinhart said it’s gotten uglier in recent years.
“I think they try to make it more personal now,” he said. “In the past, you make a big call in a big game, half are gonna boo and half aren’t. But now they’re looking for ways to make it a personal attack on you.”
“Seems like a lot of times, especially coming from fans, the first word out of their mouth is ‘you’ or ‘you’re,'” he said. “Again, everybody takes it a little differently. You’ve got to have a thick skin and be able to take a little bit of it.”
A large number of officials have decided not to.
It’s an issue Rugg said the OHSAA and schools are dealing with.
“The interscholastic environment is one of the better environments in sports, as related to club and recreational and those type of things, which our officials all officiate in,” he said. “Those are less controlled environments.
“For us, promote that high-90 percent of our environments are really good, and that’s where our schools can help even more, and that’s what I’ve talked with them about,” he said. “We need to make sure that our environments stay good, and get better, the ones that aren’t as good.”
Rugg said much of it can come down to the schools themselves. The OHSAA can deal with coaches and players. The schools usually have to control the fans.
Reinhart and Roth each downplayed the difficulties with the competitors themselves.
“You start thinking about all the coaches I’ve met over the years, and there’s probably 10 of them that I wouldn’t want to officiate their games, you know, if I had a choice,” he said. “You think about it, I’ve probably seen thousands of coaches, and if you can narrow it down that much, that says a lot for the people you’ve worked with.”
As for the players, Roth said working with them may be the most rewarding.
“I’d say that’s probably the funnest part,” he said. “Not too long ago, I was in their shoes.”
As for the shortage itself, there is some hope of it getting better.
“We’ve eliminated the window of when our instructors can hold classes,” Rugg said, “which really helps, because the students are taking the classes when they want, as opposed to whenever we say it’s the right time to take them.”
There’s also been a major increase in schools including officiating classes as part of their curriculum.
Two years ago, Rugg said two schools had officiating classes for high school students. Last year there were 20.
“This year, if everybody who says they want to do it does it, we’ll have over 100,” Rugg said.
Then it’s all about a learning process. Rugg said they want to make junior high officiating about learning, just as it is for the players.
And Reinhart said it goes beyond that level.
“I tell people, in the JV games, ‘stop yelling,'” Reinhart said. ” It’s either a young official who’s going to get better, or it’s a grizzly official who is where they’re going to be.”
And for the high school and college officials, no matter what they’re hearing, they’re moving on to the next play.
“I never really think, ‘Wow, I’m doing good,’ or ‘I’m doing bad,'” Roth said. “But, definitely, car ride home, I’ll say, ‘What could I have done better. What could I have done on this play?’ During the game, you’re always focusing on the next play.You can’t be thinking about the play four plays ago, or you’re gonna miss the next one.”
In that way, coaches, players and officials are the same.
“The thing I’ve noticed as I get older, the coaches that have been around longer appreciate your experience, and your consistency that you come out on to the court,” Reinhart said. “Typically those guys will listen to you. They may not like what you said, but when you look them in the eye and tell them, they will at least accept it. And quite frankly, the older coaches know that, hey, it’s over, let’s move on.”
That may be a good lesson for all of us when it comes to officiating and sports.