By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
The Alabama High School Athletic Association promotes the value of sports to the youth of the state. Having high school and junior high school athletic contests requires having referees; but fewer and fewer people are volunteering to be athletic officials.
Mark Jones, the Alabama High School Athletic Association Director of Officials, is a former city councilman in Jacksonville, Alabama, His political career began for the same reason as his time as a high school sports official.
“If you think you can do better and make a difference, jump in there and make it better instead of continuing to complain about it,” Jones said. “That’s one problem I see in our society. We love to complain, but we don’t want to solve the problem.”
Jones has been an official for more than 35 years as a football, baseball, softball and basketball official. He is working with associations across the state to encourage young people to pick up a whistle and get involved – or stay involved – with sports as an official.
Jones said that it’s a tough job with relatively small monetary rewards, but one that can lead to advancement to college or professional positions. At the high school level, a sports official is able to influence young people by teaching sportsmanship and fair play.
Ron Baynes from Mountain Brook was an official for 28 years in the National Football League and retired as the NFL’s supervisor of officials.
“The selling point to getting into officiating is that you really need to have a sense of wanting to give back to sports,” Baynes said. “It’s OK to view it as an opportunity to make a little extra income, but to really make it work, you need to feel a need to get back involved. We call officiating a fraternity. It’s a group of guys who can relate to each other. Some of the closest friends I have are guys I officiated with. It’s like staying on a team in sports.”
“Honestly, it’s not for everybody,” Baynes said. “My three sons are in big-time officiating (two in the NFL, one in college) and I’ve had others in my family who have tried it. My son-in-law, who I love dearly, tried it and he didn’t like it. When I asked him why, he said, ‘I made a mistake out there.’ I told him we all make mistakes, then he said, ‘I like for people to like me too much to do this.’”
Jones said that officials receive a lot of criticism, and social media has made that even worse.
“The role of the contest official is essential for high school sports to teach the lessons we know it can teach,” said Steve Savarese, executive director of the AHSAA. “They work tirelessly to become the best contest officials they can be. We are fortunate in Alabama to have so many who sacrifice so much to become officials. They come from all walks of life. We are thankful for the leadership provided by Mr. Jones and Greg Brewer before him and for our veteran officials who are proving to be such outstanding mentors. However, we as a public must do our part and learn to treat them with the respect they deserve. If we don’t, then we will be facing a severe shortage of officials in the future.”
Jones said that most young officials must start at the grassroots level.
“A problem we have is that everybody has to start out on the junior high level,” Jones said, “where the play is just not that good. The coaches who are also just starting out sometimes think they are NBA-ready. Lots of them think it’s coaching to yell at the officials. Everybody thinks they should be perfect, so mom and dad start yelling and grandpa starts yelling at the officials. These officials don’t want to be berated all the time, so before they can become a good official, they get out.”
More than 35 high schools now offer a sports-officiating class for students that was approved as part of the curriculum by the Alabama Department of Education.
“The AHSAA is committed to addressing the issue of the declining number of officials,” Jones said. “It is a nationwide problem and Alabama hasn’t experienced the problem as severely as some other states. Retention of officials becomes an issue as young officials drop out after two to three years and the major factor in retention is verbal abuse. With the expanding use of technology and social media, the expectations of officials have become unrealistic. Officiating is the one profession that individuals are expected to start as perfect and then get better.”
The Alabama High School Athletic Association, founded in 1921, is a private agency organized by its member schools to control and promote their athletic programs. The purpose of the AHSAA is to regulate, coordinate and promote the interscholastic athletic programs among its member schools, which include public, private and parochial institutions.