'A wonderful idea': Union approves new PIAA referee class

Jan. 20—Students at Union Area High School will soon be able to learn how to be a PIAA official.

During its meeting Wednesday, the school board approved seven new elective courses for high school students, one of which is PIAA officiating.

"We asked the teachers to come up with ideas for new electives," said district curriculum Director Dr. Scott O'Donnell.

O'Donnell said students who are 16 or 17 can officiate athletic competitions for ninth grade and below, with their officiating exam free to take.

This is through the PIAA Junior Officials Program, which was announced in November 2022.

Students have to be 18 to officiate a high school competition, and there is a fee for the exam.

"I think it's a good opportunity to learn multiple sports," said district athletic director Kim Niedbala, who also is the head varsity football coach. "I think our school is very proud of the tradition of students competing in multiple activities, athletics being one of them."

Union will be joining only a handful of schools across the state offering the program, according to WPIAL Executive Director Scott Seltzer.

"I think it's a good opportunity for students," said Seltzer, a Mohawk High graduate.

One of these is the North Hills School District in Allegheny County.

Its class is called Sports Officiating and Principles of Coaching which is "designed for students to study the art, science, industry standards, and best practices of the officiating profession across all levels of sport; as well as teach students the expectations and ethical problems facing developmental sport programs for youth and athletic coaches today. This course will provide hands-on experience working in teams, combined with a study of moral and ethical philosophy along with best practices from sports thought-leaders, to explore ways to handle these concerns. After this course, students will be allowed to become certified PIAA sports officials."

"I think it's a wonderful idea," said John Yerage, the rules interpreter for the Lawrence County chapter of PIAA officials.

Yerage said the Junior Officials Program, and now the officiating in school classes, are vital in not only helping with the ongoing shortage of officials but gradually replacing officials who have been around for years.

"To spur interest in our young people. Our officiating ranks are getting older. We need an infusion of young people to take over for us old guys," Yerage said.

Yerage said he has over 40 years of officiating experience, as he was made an official the same day as Ellwood City Mayor Anthony Court. He also said he knows an official who has been working for over 60 years.

Of course, Yerage said the biggest reason there is an official shortage in Pennsylvania, especially for sports such as football and basketball, is negative interactions and threats from parents, fans, etc.

Yerage said while all officials are trained to tune out the hostilities as much as possible, they are human, and it negatively affects them over time.

"They don't want to be abused. We are humans," Yerage said. "We are there to support the student-athletes. We try to give them the most level playing field and the most fair playing conditions possible."

Yerage said negative interactions with officials have gotten progressively worse over the last couple of years, leading to the shortages.

Niedbala said at Union, the district has not had a shortage of officials at all grade levels.

Seltzer said it is individuals known as assignors who work with the school districts that assign officials to games, not the WPIAL. Yerage said assignors also work to set up junior members with mentors and to decide whenever they are ready to officiate on their own and when they can move up to the varsity level.

O'Donnell said this could help with the officiating shortages throughout the state, but said even if a student does not want to become an official, he or she will still learn more about the rules and regulations of their favorite sports.

Yerage said in 2023, there were more than 200 participants in the Junior Officials Program, with two in football and three in basketball in Lawrence County.

He said they all had a positive experience. He said if the program is a success then there will no longer be a shortage and games no longer have to be moved or postponed.