Civility over all

I have been involved in some sort of athletics almost all my life, starting with my first t-ball team at age 6. (On the Cubs, with red jerseys. . . )

And I have been involved in high school athletics and above since high school. It started out filming basketball games for Coach Mike Greer and included my high school baseball playing career. Since walking into Milan High School in the fall of 1993, here are the things I have done in athletics:

(These are in chronological order, the best my brain can accomplish.)

(Also, I left out things like rec sports or playing slow-pitch softball. I know a couple of friends (Pat Bunch, Johnny Johnson) that may take offense to that, so this is me mentioning it)

High School Baseball Player
College Baseball Player
College Play-by-play Basketball Voice
College Baseball Public Address Announcer
Little League (then Cal Ripken) Umpire
High School Baseball Umpire
YMCA Basketball Referee
High School Baseball Assistant Coach
High School Boys’ Basketball Assistant Coach
High School Baseball Head Coach
Middle School Girls’ Basketball Head Coach
Upward Soccer Coach
Middle School/High School JV Basketball Referee
High School Football Radio Voice
High School Basketball Radio Voice
Upward Basketball Coach
Upward Basketball Referee
High School Athletic Director
High School Cross-Country Head Coach
TSSAA Board Member
School District Athletic Director
Cal Ripken Baseball Coach
Travel Baseball Coach
Travel Baseball Umpire
High School Volleyball Referee

Even with the feeling I’m leaving something out, I digress to get on with my point.

This year, after working only a year and a half as a registered basketball referee 13 years ago, I returned to refereeing basketball. Understand that I have likely umpired almost 1,000 baseball games in my career from 9-10 year olds up through college-aged leagues. So, being a game official is nothing new. But, after hearing about the nation-wide shortage of officials in virtually every sport over the past few years (and this being our family’s first time in 8 years that we didn’t have to attend a middle school basketball game that one of our children was playing in), I decided to pick the whistle back up. The season still has a few weeks left (and I have a few nights left on my schedule – both high school and middle school), but I wanted to share some things I’ve seen and heard this year.

Some of this, I already knew. I have been observing as an Athletic Director at two different schools since 2007 and as a parent of a high school athlete in multiple sports since 2017. Regardless, here are some things I give as food for thought for all of us (myself included).

A high percentage of officials really love officiating for the right reasons

It has been refreshing to work with individuals who referee basketball for a number of good reasons. Either they love the game and enjoy being around it or they love the thought of being a part of something positive for young people or they care about the schools and the communities they represent. They put a ton of time into knowing the rule book, being in the right position, communicating well with partners/coaches/athletes, and having proper mechanics. All are necessary to being a good official in any sport.

Yes, getting paid to do it is a part of it and for some that is part of the motivation. And yes, there are exceptions to this just like anything else – there are officials who have rotten attitudes and don’t put time or effort into the craft. But overall, these folks leave their regular jobs (early, sometimes) or their college dorm rooms or their retirement porch swings and recliners in order to do their very best every night. This is in spite of having achy knees, hips, and ankles or worn out backs and muscles. And I haven’t even touched on the environments they call in – that’s coming shortly.

But I love working with a crew that cares about doing it right, not trying to get it over with as quickly as possible, and who care about the kids on the floor. And most of the people you see officiating fit that description.

The coaches who are real jerks are out there. . . but are in the minority

Being one myself, I know that coaches can get a reputation for being difficult in dealing with officials. I will even admit that I have crossed the line of sportsmanship with an umpire before (former players, no comments here please). But, the coaching fraternity as a whole understands the relationship with officials and do make a real effort to cultivate those relationships. If you’re a coach reading this, let me give you a few things that go a long way with officials.

  1. Treat the official like a human being. I have given out a few technical fouls this year, but have been pretty patient overall. Two in particular were almost identical. Both were for the coach running down the sideline to express displeasure with a call (or no-call). Both times, the coach’s face was red with anger, he jumped at some point during the sideline run, and he was yelling at the top of his voice. I gave the “T” immediately in those instances. I simply won’t be treated like less than a respected human being and we shouldn’t ask any official to accept otherwise. I have a wife and kids and a job and a dog and go to church – just like you do, coach. Go home and yell at the dog, instead (and then apologize to him/her too).
  2. Communication really goes a long way. If you have a question about why I called something, I should be able to articulate that as a competent official. Just ask. We may still disagree, but at least you’ve heard why I called (or didn’t call) something specifically. Now, I don’t think asking about a call every other time down the floor is appropriate either. If you’re that coach, you might want to give your team as much or more attention as you are my partners and me. I had a successful veteran coach tell me one time, “When I run out of things to say to my boys, I’ll start on the refs.” He rarely argued with officials. And has two state titles under his belt. By the way, any official who won’t have those conversations isn’t holding up his/her end of the bargain in a contest either.
  3. It’s just a game. Before the game, shake hands and remember how lucky we all are to be doing this (coaches and refs). And after the game, shake hands and remember how lucky we all are that we got to to this. I promise you that the number of officials that show up to intentionally call for or against any team are in percentages so minuscule they are practically immeasurable. Sometimes, players miss shots. Sometimes, coaches make mistakes in play-calling or personnel decisions. And sometimes, officials don’t get a call right. One high school game this year, I administered a technical foul to the bench of a team whose assistant coach wouldn’t stop riding my partner over some of his calls. The game was well in hand in the fourth quarter, so it had no impact on the game whatsoever. After the game, I ran into the head coach of that team before leaving the building. I stuck my hand out and told him good luck the rest of the season. He looked at my hand, said, “I’m good,” and refused to shake it, still pouting immaturely over the technical foul. Surely, we are better than that, coaches!

Coaches that seem to have more patience or have better relationships with officials do these three things night in, night out.

(And before you think I’ve forgotten player behavior, I’m convinced after over 22 years in high school athletics that the players involved are almost always a direct expression of their either their coach’s attitude or his apathy to correct theirs.)

Fan behavior is ruining the high school athletic experience

Man, this one is hard. We feel, as fans, that it is our right to shout at the officials. If I can go a basketball game without hearing someone yell “And One!” “Get them off of him/her” or “Over the Back!” I’ll give you my game fee for that night. It simply won’t happen. And that goes for games where I’m a fan.

Overall, basketball officials understand hearing a crowd react to a block/charge call under the goal, a travel call (or no-call), or even being told the foul count when it’s 5-0 or 7-1. (Despite that last one having the team with more fouls using a full-court press on defense OR refusing to attack the rim on offense. . . but, I digress). But, I have looked up in the stands this year as my partner reports a foul to see dads stumbling down the bleachers to get closer to the floor to yell or moms turn red-faced as they point at the official and yell at the top of their lungs or even those who wander onto the actual playing surface like Spike Lee.

My personal favorite was the mom that came down from the 10th row to the floor level to point and yell, run back up to her seat, then come back down to the floor to make one last point (not a game I was officiating). The most extreme examples include fans that wait for officials to go to their vehicles or even assault them on the floor (happened last year in our state by an elected official, no less).

Research has shown that the reason(s) young or new officials either don’t sign up at all or don’t stay with it almost always relates to the treatment they get by coaches and fans. It isn’t the physical toll or the amount of money – those two things almost never come up in exit surveys with former officials. They simply got tired of being treated in a disrespectful manner each night.

There are officials who just aren’t very good

If you have ever coached a team in any sport at any level, you know that some kids are better than others. And some kids are not very good at all. Oftentimes, the latter come with great attitudes and they want to be more athletic, more talented, and more coordinated. But the fact is, they just are not.

The same rings true with officials. And with a shortage in every sport, you can’t simply not use them. They don’t have a good feel for the game, they can’t get up and down the floor very well, they don’t know the rules as well as they should, or they just don’t have good overall judgment. These folks are also in the minority, but they do exist. Any amount of yelling won’t help. They too, like the t-ball player eating the pile of dirt, aren’t going to be much better at the end of the season than they are now.

What is the advice here? Treat them with respect. Assume that their partners likely know this as well (and they do). And pray you don’t get them too often.

That’s really all I can say about this one.

More of us should get out there and ref! (Or at least help recruit)

I’m so proud of my daughter, Kara, for trying her hand at officiating basketball the past two years (I even have had the pleasure of working 2-3 nights with her this year). Time will tell if she sticks with it long-term, but more of our high school graduates who aren’t playing in college (or even after they’re done with that) should give it a try.

Do you love (or at least like) the game? Are you physically able to at least move up and down the floor (some sports, requiring much less)? Could you stand to earn a little extra money? Do you have time to give 1-2 days a week (assignors would like more, but they’ll take 1-2 days). Then why not give back and officiate!

If you put time and energy into doing it correctly (learn rules, learn mechanics, and gain experience putting those to practice) you’ll enjoy officiating almost as much as you enjoyed playing or coaching.

This year has been a great learning experience for me as a high school basketball and volleyball referee. Like any former athlete, I want to compete and do well. So, I want my next game to be the best one I’ve ever called. And next year, I want to be better than I was this year.

As a coach, I enjoy every minute getting to guide young men on the baseball field. I am thankful that the Lord placed that passion in my heart and get to carry it out in what I do.

And as a parent of an athlete, I can’t wait to watch my sons’ next game(s). I am thankful for the joy it brings me to watch them compete.

Lord, help me not to lose sight of those things at the next game. See you there!

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