WNYCFO dealing with shortage of officials

James Neiss/staff photographerIn this Sept. 6 file photo, Lew-Port quarterback J.P. Stewart hands off to running back Gino Fontanarosa in front of an official during a game against Medina.

A problem that is affecting the entire country's high school sports landscape is being felt right here in our own backyard. With the number of certified referees down, specifically with football, schools are having to schedule more games on Thursday nights to be able to spread out their officiating crews over a three-day slate.

The Western New York Chapter of the New York State Association of Certified Football Officials' secretary-treasurer Dale Mussen has been working football games for 30-plus years now and he sees how the game continues to churn out young talent. The same, however, cannot be said for the Western New York Certified Football Officials and its next generation.

"We continue to get older, the referees continue to get older," Mussen said. "But the players are always the same. So we need some new blood in our organization."

Mussen said that the brotherhood the organization provides has been tremendous in his life, giving him lifelong friends and its brought him in contact with people from all different walks of life. The problem may be that some people think they are built for a position like this, until they see how things go once the live bullets are flying.

"We have open arms for anybody that's willing to do it, but when you're an official it takes a certain person to do it," Mussen said.

"It's somebody that's willing to take the criticism because we get it all the time and once you throw a flag, there's gonna be 50% of the people in the stadium that disagree and dislike you for throwing that flag. ... We need guys that are willing to go out there and take the criticism and be deaf to the criticism that they get. It's not an easy job, not everyone can do it. "

Another reason for the Thursday games being scheduled is due to more and more schools adding turf fields with new lighting, prompting teams to want more under the light night games. Since the number of games has increased and the number of officials has declined, the schools must accommodate for the lack of extra bodies on hand. This season, the WNYCFO has around 130 officials in the organization and just 90 of them certified to referee varsity games.

At one point in time, the organization fielded nearly 160 refs on the staff and about 110 of them were certified for the varsity level.

The officials have enjoyed the swing in the scheduling and it allows for some of the best crews to be put together for Thursday night games. Since the association has a ranking system for its officials and not many schools have Thursday games to play, the area's top-tier refs are more available to be at hand for those outings.

Getting to that level of status takes time though, with the officials having to go through a process of at least four years working sub-varsity schedules, ranging from modified and JV games to little league games as well. According to the chapter president Matt Palma, there were about 60 people who showed interest to work this season's games, which led to around 30 or so applicants, then falling to around 20 people when it came to showing up for the required meetings and that finally resulted in only about 10 of which remaining from there.

Palma, who also served as the NYSACFO's president for the 19 chapters across the Empire State, is a nearly 40-year veteran that sees how the tide has turned for the association.

"(The lack of) commitment. ... People are different nowadays," Palma said. "It's a commitment in dollars and cents. A lot of people have a house and both people are working, and they have children and you can understand that. ... They have a choice and most of the time its family (first)."

WNYCFO members are required to attend instructional meetings, to study the rules book, to pass an annual fitness test and pass an annual written exam, which Mussen and Palma both mentioned as being too much of a commitment for those who aren't fit to make it as an official. An financial investment in uniforms, fingerprinting and annuals dues are also things they shared as potential barriers for applicants.

Mussen continues to promote and recruit for the organization through social media and he's hoping there's people out there willing to check out the WNYCFO.com website. He hopes people can see what the organization has to offer and the good it may bring for themselves and for the kids.

The WNYCFO will rely on the strength of its veteran staff for now and even have a member who has put in over 50 years of service. Mussen assuredly understands just what keeps him coming back for more.

"Every sport (from) soccer and football and baseball, every sport is looking for officials that are willing to do this," Mussen said.

" ... (We need) men and women who are dedicated enough to do this for the benefit of the players and the youth players. Because without the officials, there is no game. ... I don't know how many times I've said to myself on some of these Friday night games 'where would rather be than right here, right now?' Because it is so much fun. ... (The officials) come from all walks of life. They're police officers, they're firemen, they're teachers, they're lawyers. Like in my case, a radio announcer. We have people from all walks of life and I don't think I once (thought) 'oh this guy's a police officer, this guy's a teacher.' No they're football officials, they're in our organization (and) we're all the same level."

For more from sports reporter Khari Demos, follow him on Twitter @riri_demos.

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