MOUNT VERNON — It may be the most under-appreciated job in sports, but the game can’t start without them. The shortage of scholastic game officials in the state of Ohio has reached levels that have many concerned.
The problem is most acute in track and field, which is where the greatest demand is. Some, like area official Lester Barnhart of Columbus, are doing something about it. Barnhardt and others are going out into the community to find new officials. He will be taking his crusade to the Mount Vernon, where he will be at the library on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. in meeting room D. Barnhardt is hoping that his efforts, and that of others, will strike a new pool of young officials and reverse the downward trend.
“We probably have not done an adequate job of preparing young officials,” Barnhart said. “Three or four years ago we had 1,100 track and field officials. This year, in Ohio, we only have around 800, so we are down quite a bit. There are some local associations of us that are doing some recruiting. We are trying to get a little better at this recruiting business. We are trying to offer help and assistance to see if we can turn that around.”
Barnhart and others attribute the growing shortage to several causes, including the financial demands on young, working people. More than other officials in other sports, track and field officials are asked to make a greater commitment of their time at every event.
“With the really younger people, if they are not in the school system, their work schedule gets in the way sometimes,” Barnhart said. “Track meets start at 4:30, but the officials are supposed to be there at least an hour early. They have to check out the safety of the venue and they have to meet with the volunteers. Often, there’s only one paid official, and that person is charged with making sure that everyone is in place and knows what they’re doing. That person has to answer questions before the field events start. That means he has to get there early. Sometimes jobs don’t permit that.”
While basketball officials, for example, have much less pre-game preparation, they are under more of a microscope than other types of officials. Fans sit closer to the action and the pressure on officials is greater.
“The pressure is not the same in track and field,” Barnhart said. “Our officials are sort of further away from the audience in the bleachers and I think track fans are a little more understanding than some of the other sports.”
While money probably should not factor into one’s decision to become an official, low pay has been cited as one of the constraints, keeping people from choosing that path. With the rising cost of everything however, money becomes a commitment, because people are paying bills and are forced to opt to do something that will help them make ends meet rather than being an official.
“Lately, some of us in Central Ohio have been lobbying the schools to increase the pay schedule,” Barnhart said. “We’re making a little progress on that, but that’s kind of long-term.”
Barnhart is hoping that employers can be understanding — especially for prospective track and field officials.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to get around the commitment aspect,” Barnhart said. “Track and field officials have to make sure there are good volunteers at the meets helping with the different events. We have to have helpers at the finish line and everybody has to be doing their job.”
As the pool of track and field officials shrinks, the number of starters is diminishing faster.
“Ideally, you will have four paid officials at a tri-meet in the beginning of the season,” Barnhart said. “One might be the starter. Sometimes, two might share the starting duties. Then, another one works field events or oversees them. Another place where you can pick up a lot of time is to have a really good clerk. He is known as the clerk of the course. They are the ones who check the kids in, assign them to their lanes and give them instructions. If a clerk is not skilled or knowledgeable at that – perhaps they can do some of that job but not all of it – then, it is left to the starter to get them in the lanes and talk to them about the break points and whatever other instructions they need.”
It usually takes 20 volunteers to have a properly run meet. While officials have to show up early at each event to make sure there are adequate volunteers. Seasoned officials can ease that burden by preparing volunteers before the season starts.
“We can help that by volunteering our time to offer assistance to volunteers to help train them and answer questions,” Barnhart said. “We can help ADs who are unfamiliar with track and field. We can help them understand that this is a big labor demand. You need a lot of people to run the meet and run it well.”
Perhaps some of those volunteers will be part of the answer to the future of officiating. In the meantime, Barnhart and others continue to look for a new generation of officials.
“If we had a chance to work with them,” Barnhart said. “Have them shadow us for a little bit. Actually, more than shadowing, because we get them involved very quickly. We teach them how to do starts. We let them do starts under guidance. Within four or five meets, we get to the point where they can probably take their own meet if they want to. They might in the second year. They work with us in many roles and they try to learn as much as they can about each of the field events.”