A $50,000 grant from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, secured by state Sen. Paul Sarlo, will help fund a pilot program called the Diverse Officials in High School Football Scholarship Initiative, to try to make the state's "bench" of referees better reflect the student-athletes they adjudicate.

"Understand some of their thought processes, some of the pressures that they're under," Sarlo, D-Bergen, said. "The competition has increased, the recruitment has increased."

That being said, it remains rare for a high school or college athlete from New Jersey or anywhere else to go on to a pro sports career, and Sarlo said this provides a dual opportunity for the many who don't: they can help fill the Garden State job market, and stay connected to a sport they love.

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On the first point, Sarlo said staffing challenges caused in full or in part by COVID-19 have not spared high school athletic programs.

"One thing they have learned even before the pandemic, but clearly during COVID, there is a significant shortage of officials," the senator said, calling the specific dearth in football "tremendous."

Multiple organizations were involved in the development of the initiative: the New Jersey Football Officials Association, New Jersey Football Coaches Association, Super Football Conference, North Jersey Interscholastic Conference, Big Central Conference, Shore Conference, and West Jersey Football League.

Input from individuals such as Clifton High School athletic director Thomas Mullahey has also been crucial.

"We wanted to be able to recruit kids out of college, out of high school, that were (at least) 18 and in good standing, and we wanted to provide the opportunity to get trained," Mullahey said.

He and Sarlo both made the point that training to become an athletic official is often a pricier process than many realize.

The $50,000 grant figures to go a long way toward alleviating that roadblock, and Sarlo said he hopes more funding can be obtained beyond this year in order to extend the search for officials beyond football.

"Recruiting the next generation of officials, a more diverse group of officials who can relate to the student-athletes, is a good thing," he said.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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