Juggling changes and cancellations keeps referee assignors busier than usual this winter

by Mike Pavlichko

The COVID-19 pandemic that continues to affect high school sports sometimes leads to unusual matchups and last-minute games.

But it also can lead to some hair-pulling on the part of assignors.

They’re the folks that schedule referees for games, and with so many changes – sometimes, it seems, hourly – it can be hard to keep up.

Skyland Conference Assignor Jack Baum also handles officials for the Union County Conference and the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League, and says he’s it’s going to be “a year unlike any other.”

“Every day, it’s a challenge,” Baum says. That’s added on to the fact that districts have been casting off sub-varsity programs over the past several years.

Whether coincidence or not, the loss of sub-varsity teams took off when New Jersey began capping property tax increases to two percent for both local governments and school districts under the Christie administration. Hikes of two percent or lower in school districts meant they would not need to ask voters for approval as they traditionally had to do. But anything over two percent had to go to the voters. Many districts made cuts rather than risk a plan being rejected at the ballot box, and freshman basketball teams often were among the first to get the ax.

Fewer games means fewer opportunities to get regular work officiating, although the supply of referees also has been shrinking, and there’s a shortage in many sports at all levels.

This year, it’s even more notable.

“I may have to jump back in a little this year,” says Baum, who’s mostly retired from officiating these days. “I’ve had a hundred officials opt out so far,” he says, a combination of the Skyland Conference (Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren Counties) as well as the UCC and HCIAL, where he typically has about 700 officials in his scheduling portal. Baum says many leagues use a lot of the same officials.

“Every day I wake up to emails,” Baum says. “Every day it changes. It’s all hands on deck.”

Baum says there’s no immediate danger of not having officials for a game, but it’s definitely more work. He says in addition to making more calls or sending more emails to find officials, there’s the additional task of making sure they know all the COVID regulations in place.

Baum says regulations can vary from school to school and district to district, even down to separate entrances the players and student-athletes may use. Officials also are being advised to dress at home, rather than once they get to the gym, Baum says.

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