By Maurice Patton
High school sports haven’t been spared by the financial implications of the ongoing pandemic – as basketball officials recently learned.
Soon after Governor Bill Lee’s announcement of Executive Order No. 70 on Dec. 20, addressing attendance restrictions for the next month, concerns were expressed by various schools regarding officials’ game fees.
Those concerns resulted in the Jan. 1 announcement by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association that varsity game fees would be reduced, beginning on Jan. 4 and continuing through the end of regular-season play, by $25 dollars – from $105 to $80 for doubleheaders and from $75 to $50 for single games, based on the standard three-person crews.
“When the Governor’s order came down, there was … a good reduction of the number of people that could come into the gym to watch games,” said Gene Menees, assistant executive director of the TSSAA in charge of basketball. “We started getting some communication from schools about, ‘our gates have already been cut a lot; could we work two-person crews?’. For two, the fee is $115 per, which would be a savings of $80 per night, but the way the kids are playing, going up and down, it would be hard for two to keep up any more.
“The consensus was, if we could stay at three and possibly reduce the rate a little, that would help schools out.”
Menees said he spoke to representatives from each of the state’s 12 high school basketball officials associations – including the South Central, which serves Maury County and most of the surrounding schools – before any decision was made.
Whether those association supervisors or assignors made the officials aware of the development is up for debate, however.
“I had no idea, no clue that they had even talked about it,” said Corey Massey, a veteran official of nearly 20 years from Columbia. “We get an e-mail from (South Central supervisor Thomas Ray Frierson) that the rate had been changed. We had no indication at all that they were having a meeting, never gave us any type of word that they were even talking about knocking our pay (down).
“Before the Governor’s order came out, TSSAA had made recommendations of half-capacity, limiting attendance to two family members per player. Schools were already doing that. They knew from the start of the season that they were going to be limited in guests anyway. We signed a contract at the beginning of the year as independent contractors … stating our fees were going to be $105 a night, then out of nowhere we get an e-mail stating we’ve been bumped to $80.”
In response, though, a number of schools – including Columbia Academy and Zion Christian Academy – have compensated officials at the originally agreed-upon rate and intend to continue to do so.
“We’re going to lose money. It’s not anybody’s fault; it is what it is,” Zion boys basketball coach and athletics director Derek Boyd said. “But we felt like on our end, it’s the right thing to do and what our school stands behind. They come out in a pandemic and do this nightly, taking time away from their families, and we feel like it’s the right thing for us to do.”
With attracting and retaining game officials already a concern, the decision to reduce game fees nearly 25 percent – even for a relatively short period of time – would appear somewhat counterproductive.
“Referees, having a shortage, has been a concern the last three or four years,” Columbia Academy AD Pernell Knox said. “We budget for referees and what they make. I can’t say it’s hurting us.”
“I’m sure there’s concern about trying to be able to pay officials and break even on games. That’s why I’d guess there was a reduction,” Maury County Public Schools AD Chris Poynter said. “(But) if I’m an official, losing funds may cause some officials to reconsider officiating.”
Menees did stress that the previously established game fees will resume at the start of postseason play, and Massey expressed that the money, per se, isn’t the issue.
“They didn’t cut football officials, they didn’t cut volleyball officials. Why all of a sudden come hit the basketball officials?” he said. “Are they cutting security? Are they cutting custodians’ pay? Or are they just cutting the officials?”
In the end, Boyd said, all that matters is providing the athletes an opportunity to compete.
“We’re all trying to negotiate through these uncharted waters and trying to make it through the best we can,” he said. “These officials feel like they’re putting themselves on the line, masking up and coming out. We know if they hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be playing.”