In response to questions about the now-viral video of a New Year’s Eve party in a ballroom at The Greenbrier Resort, Gov. Jim Justice pointed to the employment of around 1,500 as a case for keeping the resort up and running as normally as possible.
The day before that video was shot, Justice — the owner of The Greenbrier — announced that the start of all winter high school sports in West Virginia would be pushed back from Jan. 11 to March 1 as sports in all five border states either prepared to start this week or continued on after starting earlier.
The perceived hypocrisy of the video and the ban on prep sports has drawn the ire of coaches, parents, administrators and athletes among others.
In Wednesday’s Gazette-Mail, Scott Johnson, director of the West Virginia Thunder, an AAU organization based in Huntington, spoke of the possible scheduling conflict in which prep basketball players could find themselves should high school seasons and AAU seasons overlap as they are now scheduled to do.
But Johnson, in response to Justice’s comment about employment at The Greenbrier, brought up another valid point.
“He talked in his little press conference about how The Greenbrier employs 1,500 people or whatever, well, there’s a lot of people through sports that are employed as well,” Johnson said.
“Referees, scorekeepers, concession stand stuff, there’s less stuff for the media to cover when the media gets paid to cover high school sports. That’s a lot of money out of people’s pockets.”
For officials, it can be a significant amount. Pay for referees in basketball and for umpires in softball and baseball can vary from sport to sport and from area to area.
Bob Weiford, a baseball umpire for 20 years and basketball official for five years, said the pay in the Kanawha County is $84 per varsity game in basketball and $75 per varsity game in baseball. He added that if prep basketball is wiped out completely this year, it would cause significant financial harm to officials and their families and, in reality, dating back to spring sports being wiped out last year, it already has.
“I don’t have an exact figure, but last March when things got shut down and the tail end of basketball, between what I typically do — and this is a hobby and passion we have, so nobody is doing this for a living — but I lost last year five figures,” Weiford said. “I tend to work often, some people don’t work that much, but still yet if it’s something you’re doing whether it’s for your health or you’re doing it for a little bit of side income, we’ve all lost in this, whether it be a hundred dollars or 10 thousand dollars.”
“Officials are losing a lot of money just like everyone else,” added Steve Dodd, who has officiated prep basketball for 28 years and softball for eight years. “Everybody is losing money. But we want the kids to be able to play and we want to officiate.”
The move of winter sports to the spring will also cause some issues with finding officials. Several officials, like Dodd and Weiford, handle sports in multiple seasons. But now, with winter and spring sports potentially overlapping, it may call for decisions to be made by officials as well as athletes.
“It’s going to be a huge juggling act for officials to balance what they want to do most,” Dodd said. “I feel for the [West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission] trying to piece this together. It’s a mess for them to try and figure this out.”
Not only will the start of winter sports be late, but the winter schedule will likely also be condensed, with teams trying to get in as many games as possible in a shorter amount of time. Softball and baseball schedules are already quite busy as teams tend to overschedule in anticipation of weather wiping out several games along the way.
Simply put, games can’t be held without officials, and the worry is that if they’re stretched thin and forced to decide, there may not be enough to go around.
“The ones in trouble are going to be softball and baseball,” said Mark Akers, an official in volleyball, football, basketball and softball of 28 years. “The simple fact is that basketball is inside, it’s less dangerous, and with the weather I think most will do basketball.”
Dodd also pointed to the time of a year as a possible hindrance. Officials with careers in construction or in fields depending on longer days and warmer weather may not be available at all once spring arrives.
SSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan admitted a shortage of officials is a concern, but there are steps for handling it if it does materialize.
“You have baseball and softball and basketball all going at the same time and that could cause some issues,” Dolan said. “However, on the basketball side, you don’t have any officials from Ohio or Kentucky competing at that time and those officials that are already done with sports could come over and fill the gaps.
“If a shortage should arise, I have the ability to use registered officials from other states. I’ve almost had to do it in a soccer a couple of times.”
That would mean extra money for border-state officials, all of whom as of this week are already officiating games. But it’s more than just money that will be missing, according to longtime officials.
Just like coaches are worried about the mental well-being of players and students, officials are feeling the squeeze as well as days continue to go by without competition.
“A lot of my best friends are officials and you kind of lose part of your family when you’re not out there with them,” Akers said. “They talk about mental health and it’s been a struggle.”
Weiford is 52 years old and, statistically speaking, is in more danger of experiencing significant complications from the COVID-19 virus than the high school athletes he officiates. For him — and others, including Dodd and Akers, agree — the risk is worth the reward in terms of playing sports safely during the pandemic.
“My level of concern is minimal,” Weiford said. “I mean, I’m preparing to go to [the University of] Rio Grande [in Ohio], I’ve been contacted to officiate some games over there, five games of JV for the men’s basketball team. I’m going to Ohio to work and I can’t work a high school game in my own state. I know people look at this and make decisions and I don’t see the data they see.
“But I wouldn’t have any issue working a baseball game, working a basketball game. And if someone said in order to do this, ‘You need to wear a gaiter, you need to wear a mask,’ I would do it. If that gets us on the court or on the field and that’s what we need to do, that’s what we’ll do.”