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A statewide lack of officials and drivers is causing headaches for administrators

ANDY DIECKHOFF/MADRAS PIONEER - As summer comes to a close, logisitical issues are causing issues for high school sports.With just days before the new fall season, high school athletic directors around the state are scrambling to deal with staffing shortages in multiple areas.

The problems facing Oregon high school sports are multi-layered, but the two main causes of headaches this summer have been a lack of officials –referees, umpires, and the like – as well as a shortage of bus drivers to get teams from one school to another. In some places, there simply aren't enough kids coming out to support certain sports, like what happened with South Eugene and their cancelled football season.

Those issues have made it difficult, if not impossible, for certain games to be played as previously agreed upon. That reality means that athletic directors are still finalizing their schedules, even with jamborees, endowment games, and exhibitions of all sorts starting in just a few days' time.

The problem with officials is not only an issue in Oregon, though, said Madras High School director Daniel Barendse.

"The official issue is not only regional but nationwide," said Barendse. "The pandemic has the Officials Association at 60-70% normal," he noted, in reference to the number of registered officials who will work at every sporting event this fall.

In an OSAA memo obtained by the Pioneer, the statewide governing body noted to its athletic directors that there is "little optimism that we will be able to completely fill the gap prior to the start of competitions." The memo went on to say that "some areas of the state have been hit harder than others and thus will have a more difficult time securing officials to cover contests."

"It's not ideal," said Crook County High School athletic director Rob Bonner.

"The local commissioners are doing a fantastic job," he noted. "It's frustrating on their end not getting enough officials, but they're doing great work."

Bonner was quick to note the importance of officials. He also emphasized that while he would actively recruit for interested local citizens to sign up to help the cause, the issue is more complex than just finding warm bodies.

"It takes a special person to be an official," Bonner said. "Good officials make the contest better."

He also noted that he was pleased to see some encouraging trends locally, citing examples of young wrestlers and retired basketball coaches finding their way into the officiating pool.

With all the rightful attention that the kids on the field get, it can be easy to forget the important role that officials play in sports at all levels. Of course, fans (and especially parents) notice referees and umpires when disagreeing with a call they did or did not make, but the truth is the folks in the stripes get it right far more often than they get it wrong. More importantly, the games simply can't go on without them.

(Full disclosure: My father was an OSAA basketball referee during my childhood, and I spent many a night sitting in gyms in places like Eddyville and Pleasant Hill. So, I've got a soft spot for the stripes.)

As for the problem with drivers, both Barendse and Bonner recognized it as a logistical nightmare. Without enough drivers, some school districts might not be able to support athletic transportation. 

"A lower number of bus drivers are creating issues for many of us," said Barendse, who is also assistant principal at Madras High School. "That creates issues for schools on many levels."

With teams traveling for hours at a time in just about every direction around the state, Bonner noted that "self-transport" – where athletes and their families assume responsibility for arranging their own travel to away games – "is not ideal because when schools use contracted transportation, they don't have to worry." Among those worries, said Bonner, are considerations such as insurance, training, and the driver's ability to handle inclement weather.

"We're always looking for good bus drivers, but we're going to have to get creative."

Bonner mentioned that many sports teams will be stacking their JV and varsity games back-to-back, so the same officiating crew can work both events. As athletic administrators around the state continue putting their heads together on these issues, more creativity is surely on the way.

Luckily – if that word can really apply here – nearly every school in the state is dealing with these issues.

"Everybody is in the same boat," Bonner said with a laugh, "so we're all working together really well."

In fact, the OSAA memo asked exactly that of its members.

"It is clear that moving forward member schools will need to continue being extremely flexible and ready to adjust contests dates if requested by your local commissioner. There are going to be situations where there simply aren't enough officials to cover scheduled contests. Schools are strongly encouraged to be a part of the solution in these instances, rather than exacerbating the problem by refusing to adjust schedules when needed."

There are other external factors already causing uncertainty, too, such as mask mandates for indoor sports, crowd sizes at events, and other issues stemming from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As it stands, athletes actively competing in indoor events do not have to wear masks, but coaches and spectators do have to wear them. As of now, outdoor sports remain unaffected by the newest statewide mask mandate.

With a return to normalcy so tantalizingly close, and with so much seemingly standing in the way, it would be easy to be negative about the situation.

Bonner, though, is taking a different approach.

"New things are popping up every day," said Bonner, "but at the end of the day, the skeleton of a regular season is already there."

"Today it still feels normal."

For those interested in becoming officials, contact the OSAA website at http://www.OSAA.org/officials. While the Rule Clinics for fall sports have already passed, registration for winter and spring sports in the 2021-22 school year is still open and the association is actively seeking new membership.

For those interested in becoming bus drivers, contact your local school district, either by phone or via the district website. The Jefferson County School District 509J can be reached at (541) 475-6192 or via the web at http://www.jcsd.k12.or.us. The Crook County School District can be reached at (541) 447-5664 or via the web at http://www.crookcountyschools.org.


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