Officials are scarce, non-existent in Wallowa County

<p>During an Enterprise Lady Outlaws basketball game, an official watches closely for a violation.</p>

Both referee commissioners for the sports of basketball and football in Northeast Oregon agree that finding new blood to officiate high school games is becoming more difficult.

Those two commissioners, Neil Cooper of La Grande for football and Lee Lowe of Imbler for basketball, state that at the present time, not one official in either sport lives in Wallowa County.

Crews of officials from Northeast Oregon cover 15 schools in the sport of football and 13 schools in the sport of basketball. Football officials cover games throughout much or all of Wallowa County, Union County, Baker County, and Malheur County, says Cooper. Lowe says officials he sends out to cover games in the winter sport of basketball primarily work at schools in Wallowa, Union, and Baker counties.

“They’re not standing in line to become new officials,” says Lowe, and the reasons are easily understood.

For starters, the pay is less than stellar. In football, four and sometimes five officials are sent to referee one high school game. Normally those officials are sent out in one vehicle from either La Grande or Baker City. If those officials are sent from La Grande to the most distant school they cover in John Day – not that uncommon although Cooper would first try to find officials closer to Baker City – that amounts to a total of five hours of drive time on a 250-mile road trip.

And the pay for refereeing one 1A, 2A, or 3A varsity football game amounts to $60.55. Of course the amount paid by the home school includes 50.5 cents per mile to and from the origination point to the school, but that payment only goes to the individual who drives to the car-pooled game.

Both commissioners commented on what often turns into negative, personal comments directed toward officials from avid fans attending games.

“At times you have to be thick-skinned and ignore comments from the sidelines,” says Cooper, who during his 37 years as an official and more than 25 years as the football commissioner has seen his share of officials give up officiating for that very reason.

And then, of course, especially in football, there’s the problem that all varsity games are held on Fridays, and for officials who maintain jobs, football games scheduled in the daytime can present timing conflicts.

Yet another negative factor that can deter potential officials from investing time to become referees involves the late hours and sometimes treacherous roads that need to be traveled, issues exacerbated during the winter months.

Lowe – the basketball commissioner for 10 years, a retired school teacher, and the current head football coach at Imbler High School – says juggling the personal schedules of 30-35 certified officials to cover about 700 basketball games can present a challenge.

While football officials only cover boys’ games (varsity, JV, and sometimes junior high), basketball officials referee boys’ and girls’ varsity games, boys’ and girls’ JV games, and some junior high school games of either sex.

Many officials work both football and basketball games in season, and officials of both sports can be called upon to officiate more than one game in a day.

Cooper says he tries to arrange officiating schedules so that referees of day football games can work night football games in nearby towns a few hours later. Another point he makes is that football games that require officiating coverage happen every day of the week except Wednesdays and Sundays.

As would be expected, pay earned by officials of both sports varies according to the level of competition being covered, although the Oregon Schools Athletic Association mandates that every varsity and junior varsity game be officiated by a certified referee.

Per-game pay rates for football are $60.55 for 1A, 2A, and 3A games, $41 for JV games, and $30 per official for junior high school games.

Basketball rates for the same size schools are $54 for varsity games, $41 for JV games, and $20 for junior high games, says Lowe.

Asked about the average officiating longevity of basketball officials, Lowe says it is an individual thing often determined by the “healthiness of their legs.” An experienced official of both sports, Lowe says officiating basketball puts additional stress on one’s knees because basketball is a faster sport than football.

Becoming an official of either sport is a relatively simple process.

“We’re not very sophisticated,” Cooper says. “If you’ve played football before you might be an excellent candidate.”

As with basketball, one can go online and take a 100-question OSAA test to become a qualified football official. If one receives a score of at least 78 percent, the applicant can become certified. It takes a score of 90 percent or above, plus additional training, to become qualified to officiate state playoff games.

Although some high school officials working under him have saved their officiating earnings to pay their property taxes, Cooper says, “They’re certainly not doing it for the money!”

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