The first boys basketball scrimmages for Section V are coming up soon. By the first full week of December, players, coaches and fans figure the regular season will be in full swing.

But will the officials be there?

With just a couple of weeks until the boys varsity basketball season is scheduled to kick in earnestly, it’s a big question. It’s a legitimate one, too because few officials indicated their availability to work at games by the October deadline.

While Section V administrators are hoping the resolution of grievances filed with a statewide board will signal the start of the season, they are advising local school districts to stick to their planned schedules and if officials don’t show up, the game will be cancelled. At that point, the state board can take some kind of action. 

According to a Nov. 18 letter from Kathy Hoyt, Section V Athletics Executive Director, available officials were assigned to approximately 15 games in November. Some officials have accepted the assignments and some have declined. So it appears that the bulk of games have not had officials assigned. 

Kelly Houck, superintendent at Dundee Central School, briefed the Board of Education about the situation last week, and suggested the pre-season tournament planned for Nov. 26 and 30 could be moved to late December.

Penn Yan’s regular season is scheduled to begin Dec. 2 and a scrimmage is planned this week. Dundee’s and Marcus Whitman’s regular seasons are scheduled to begin Dec. 3. It’s unclear if officials will be on hand for any of those games. 

Technically, it’s not a labor dispute, but a large majority of officials who work Section V boys games have made it known they are not happy with the current conditions. That majority has made itself “unavailable” to be scheduled to officiate games this season.

It leaves Section V with few officials to work games, so it presents a lofty challenge and a rather large dispute to resolve with little time left to do it.

“What I can say is that Section V is working to address the issue,” said Hoyt, adding, “Our main goal is to not have the season interrupted ... It’s definitely time sensitive. We’re aware of that.”

Here is the hurdle: As of late October, about 100 of 112 available basketball officials for Section V out of Board 60 have not submitted their availability for the coming season. Board 60 is the organization that trains and certifies local officials and covers all or parts of eight counties from Monroe County to parts east and west.

Two others, Boards 50 and 156, also provide officials for Section V but both are largely based in the Southern Tier.

The breakdown

Dale Trott is President of Board 60. He said there were 116 officials on the list for Board 60. Two decided to not officiate anymore and two more are not eligible. So of the remaining 112, only 12 to 14 submitted their availability for 2019-20.

“About 100 officials have told Section V they have no availability,” said Trott.

It’s tricky terrain here because legally, the officials are independent contractors, so they cannot strike or have an organized work stoppage. Nor can they receive guidance or advice from Board 60 on what action to take.

“Each individual member made their decision as independent contractors,” said Trott.

The issue for officials is three-fold: Game fees and mileage, game assignments and security at venues.

Fees and mileage

For years, officials were paid a fee to work games, plus the round-trip mileage from home to the game site. That changed three years ago when Section V proposed a flat fee for games, which would be higher than the previous game fee to take mileage into account.

Board 60 opposed this move by Section V but lost the argument in arbitration. That prompted Board 60 to withdraw from the United Sports Board Council, the umbrella organization for all sports officials that negotiated the contract with Section V.

And while the flat fee did increase to help cover mileage, Trott said the concern was that the raise didn’t cover the mileage for officials working games far from home, specifically Finger Lakes League games well south of the Thruway, such as Dundee. So the contention from Board 60 is that even though officials are being paid more per game, they’re actually being paid less in some instances because of the loss of mileage pay.

Trott said any assignment more than 30 miles round-trip is a monetary loss for officials. He also said that Section V is one of the few in New York to not pay mileage to officials. Section VI of the Buffalo area does not pay mileage but the coverage area for those officials is a much smaller territory than that of Section V, which is the largest in New York.

In July, a four-year contract between the USBC and Section V was approved and signed, which continued the flat fee for game officials, minus mileage. The contract called for officials to be paid $100 per varsity game.

The problem is that Board 60 does not recognize the contract since parting ways with the USBC over the mileage dispute.

Game assignments

Officials are assigned to work games at school gymnasiums. And Trott said the main issue here is that officials have no say.

“It’s a process that coaches control,” he said. “And really, the coaches should have no say. You won’t find this set up anywhere. It’s not ethical ... We presented the argument that we should have control of the assignment process like 99% of the other sports in Section V.”

Hoyt points to the New York State Public Public High School Athletic Association handbook, which states “Officials shall be selected and assigned by secondary-school authorities in the school, the league or the section, State Association or their designee.”

“So yes, NYSPHAA says that it’s the decision of the schools,” she said.

As it is, officials have some latitude in the games they work and are allowed a small list of schools they wish to not officiate. Same for coaches, and the actual assignment of officials to games take those lists into account.

The contention here ties into the fees and mileage part of the equation. The basketball officials say that by having no say in assignments, some officials are traveling long distances to work games and by doing that, they’re making less money to officiate than they were before, when they were paid mileage.

Security concerns

Trott acknowledges the safety issues for officials are not the same at every school. But he does point out that basketball officials are the closest to fans than in any other sport.

There are no fences or barriers between officials and fans.“Nationally, we are losing 70% of officials after three years,” he said. “And that’s because of increased vitriol from parents, coaches and players.”

What’s next?

The process at this point is heading toward at fact finding hearing, as mandated by NYSPHSAA, which has been notified of the impasse. At a date to be determined, each side will state its case and after that, each side has time to summarize the information and recommend a resolution. From there, the sides have 30 days to accept or reject the proposals.

On Nov. 7, Trott said Board 60 had a scheduled internal meeting to discuss a new proposal from Section V. But he’s not optimistic.

“On the surface, it does not meet the requirement that would be in the best interest of basketball,” he said. “That’s my opinion.”

So if the hearing doesn’t produce a resolution, the matter heads to the American Arbitration Association. That, of course, will take time and if it goes that far, the chances of a delayed start to the season are very real.

Officials are free to work games during the process, but again, Trott said that’s a decision to be made by each individual official.

What it will take for officials to return to the court? Trott said for him, progress needs to be made on all three fronts, especially security. He can’t speak for all the officials, so it’s difficult to predict how long the majority of officials will not be available.

Hoyt said Section V has explored other officiating options, which she didn’t want to make public, but is hoping it doesn’t come to that. There are no scheduled meetings between the sides, but the doors remain open.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” she said. “But in my role, I have to operate with the main focus on what is best for the student-athletes.”

Includes reporting by Gwen Chamberlain.