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Numbers not adding up for basketball officials

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Ab Orton, a referee with the Oregon School Activities Association, walks off the field after a game between La Grande and Vale on Sept. 17, 2021. The OSAA is experiencing a referee shortage as it enters into basketball season, just as it had during football season in 2021.

LA GRANDE — George Gillette isn’t blowing the whistle to signal a panic-level problem when it comes to the number of officials who will call prep basketball games for the upcoming season. But he could be reaching for it soon.

The Blue Mountain Basketball Officials Association commissioner has seen a steady decline in numbers for decades, but the impact now is truly being felt.

Last spring’s pandemic-compacted five-week season tested officials across the state, and the Blue Mountain Basketball Officials Association — which is based out of Pendleton and handles schools from the state line at Milton-Freewater to Boardman and south to Ukiah through Pilot Rock — was no different.

“We were extremely short and we had less than half of what we would normally have during a regular season,” Gillette said.

The association usually counts between 45 and 50 basketball officials able to work games in its region, but during the spring that number dropped to 17. It was further pared down to 12 by the end of the season because of injuries or overwork. It led to a situation where games were rescheduled or even canceled.

Gillette said with the varsity and JV schedules of the 13 schools the association is assisting this year, he is trying to cover about 1,200 games. Schools are moving games to different days, trying to find enough officials to work the games, but that only does so much.

Gillette is hoping the number of available officials increases before games tip-off Dec. 1.

It is not a basketball-specific issue either. Football games were being played on Thursdays and Saturdays in addition to Friday to try to alleviate some of the official shortage.

“Moving games around will help, but most of the schools start games at 3 p.m. and it is difficult to get people to break away and be able to be in a gym and toss a ball up at that time,” Gillette said.

Lingering issue

Gillette held his first meeting for this season Nov. 1 and had 25 officials attend, but there is a new problem he is having to contend with.

“We don’t have a lot of lower-level officials, and last spring basically all 16 officials associations in Oregon were shorthanded,” he said. “The (Oregon Schools Activities Association) allowed the schools to take the level of play at the JV level to the JV2 level, which means they did not have to use certified officials to work those games.”

Gillette said he is fearful that could happen again this season. It makes it difficult for schools to find individuals to referee the games.

“The biggest issue is liability because if you have an injury there are a lot of things that could come into play on the legal side,” he said. “(Certified officials) have training in case of injury, and we know what OSAA policy is.”

Other associations across the state are facing similar situations and can rarely send their officials to other areas to cover another associations’ games.

Disturbing trend

Referee shortage is not just an Oregon issue but a nationwide problem driven by several factors, Gillette noted. It is a decline 30 to 40 years in the making with older officials getting out for a variety of reasons and no one there to take their place.

“Young people watch games growing up and see people in the stands going crazy, and really question whether they want to go out and subjugate themselves to being treated that way,” he said.

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An Oregon School Activities Association referee waits for the second quarter to start in a OSAA 2A state championship match between Heppner and Regis on Nov. 6, 2021.

Gillette has been commissioner for 24 years, but has been an official for 52 years at the high school level. He began as a 19-year-old and has continued on. Today’s athletes graduate and have many other avenues to make money or spend their time.

“Trying to get people involved is very difficult,” he said.

The lack of officials can also have an impact on the court with more games officiated by two-man crews rather than the preferred three.

“Over half our games in the spring had just two-man crews,” Gillette said. “That is why peoples’ bodies started breaking down when they are working four and five nights a week. It doesn’t mean in three-man that you don’t run, but it is shorter distances and your vision and focus is greater.”

Getting involved

Becoming a certified official begins with a simple click of a mouse on the “Become an official” button on the OSAA website. After choosing a sport, they fill out an online information sheet and the OSAA will reach out to the proper association based on where the individual lives.

For basketball, registration and a fee is required as well as a background check. Individuals watch a video on warning signs when an athlete may have suffered a concussion, and there are six required meetings or at least 10 hours of instruction.

“People also have to take a state certification test that is 50 questions,” said Gillette, who said people get three tries at the test.

To officiate at the junior varsity or lower level, people only need to take the test. A varsity-level official must score 75 or better. To qualify for postseason assignments, officials must have three years of experience and score 90 or above.

The latest requirement is to supply a COVID-19 vaccination card or apply for a medical or religious exemption.

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