This summer I was asked by our high school’s girls’ basketball coach to referee some summer scrimmage games they were playing against a couple other schools. While I have done my share of refereeing scrimmages, intramural games, and youth camp games, I am not an official. I am a coach. I have coached for 30+ years, so I know the game, and I know how to coach the game. (Although I am sure you would get some arguments on that point from some of the fans and parents of players of mine through the years!)
Officiating is not my thing. I am okay at it, but I have not been trained in it, never been to a clinic on it, and never been to any officials’ study tables. (Yes, officials go to weekly study tables during their seasons to learn how to officiate better.) I know most of the rules, the basics of where to stand, what to look for, and what some of the hand signals are when making a call.
I ran hard up and down the floor that night, trying to see as many things as I could, but I realized there was no way I could see it all. While I was running down the floor to get into position, there were things happening behind me or across the court that I didn’t see. Even when I was in position, there was too much going on with ten people running around, all moving at the same time, trying to go to the same places, bumping into each other, swinging arms, touching, pushing, falling, all while trying to put a ball in a basket or keeping someone else from doing just that.
Also, I had one perspective, from one angle, with one set of eyes to process what I saw through all those bodies. I then made a judgment on what I saw. The fans had a different perspective, angle, and set of eyes from which they saw it, albeit from a lot farther away. I may have seen it correctly, or I may not have. The same holds true for the fans. But somehow, when fans think they saw it right and the official saw it wrong, they get upset, sometimes VERY UPSET. Their perspective and view doesn’t mean they were right, but just that they saw it differently.
But officials are expected to be perfect. They are expected to see everything that is happening and to see it perfectly and then make a judgment perfectly. Where else in the world does this happen? I can think of no job in our world like it. Quite honestly, it is an impossible job. Try it sometime. In fact, you might have to in the future. (More on that later)
For the Kids
And yet, I think I could be a decent official if I ever decided to become one. I feel that way because when I am officiating, I want to be good at it for the kids. That inspires me to try really hard to get every call right. I feel they deserve me to give my best to them. There are probably some officials out there who don’t necessarily feel that way, and I believe those officials need to either change their attitude or get out of officiating. However, for the most part, I believe officials want to do a good job. They are trying their best to be their best, just like the players and coaches are.
Unfortunately, officials are often not seen this way. They are viewed through a myopic lens that is totally subjective based upon the individual views of the people watching them. These people generally feel that all officials or certain officials are either bad officials, bad people, trying to screw their team, or trying to screw any visiting team. These fans watch the games through a lens that is completely one-sided.
But officials are human. They make mistakes. They have feelings. They have two eyes that allow them to only see so much of the court, field, mat, pitch, or whatever surface is being played on. They have to move fast to get into position to see all that they can see. They then have to make split-second judgments on what they have seen or believe they have seen. They then have to blow a whistle, raise their hands, and verbally announce their judgment. And they do this knowing that a large percentage of the people playing and watching will not like their announcement and will let everyone within earshot of their very loud voice know their displeasure.
Often, this vocalizing will come in the form of an attack of the official, sometimes in a very personal way. As if the official just did something so horrible to them, their team, or their little baby out there (who may have actually done the thing the official said s/he did), that they feel it is their God-given right to yell from the mountaintops the injustice that has just occurred. These people’s response is not confined to a one-on-one meeting behind closed doors where the supposed infraction by the official can be discussed and defended. No, this is done in the most public of venues with the officials having just about no recourse, no way to explain themselves, and no way to convince those in disagreement why they decided on that judgment.
Imagine if in your workplace, every decision you made was scrutinized and then criticized in this same fashion as officials are criticized. Imagine if your boss, immediate supervisor, or co-workers were to yell at you the way that fans yell at officials on just about every decision you make. How long would you last in that job? How well would you perform at that job knowing that each decision would be met with such harsh judgment, derisiveness, ridicule, scorn, and venom?
It’s almost laughable when I think of some of the people who are coming to my mind that I have known who have treated officials this way, and I consider how they would be rolled up into the fetal position and crying if they were spoken to just once the way they speak to officials on a regular basis.
And yet, there is nothing funny about it. Officials are doing a job, a job that must be done, and a job that without them doing it would mean that our children would not get to play the games that they want to play. We are losing officials faster than we are getting new ones, and the #1 reason for that is the way they are treated by fans and by coaches.
A Shortage of Officials
Mike Morgan, one of our speakers for Proactive Coaching, does an outstanding presentation on “Partnering with Officials.” (I highly recommend you check it out at the Proactive Coaching website.) In it, he talks about how coaches, athletes, parents, & fans need to work with officials and try to better understand what they go through. He discusses the three groups of officials that we now have – baby boomers who are finishing their officiating, young officials who are just getting started, and those in the middle. Twenty years ago, the middle group was the largest group. They had been the young, fresh officials at one time, and they enjoyed it enough to stay in it and get pretty good at it. They soon became the middle group of veterans.
But nowadays, that group is the smallest group. Why? Because while they are the young officials just getting started, they get ridiculed and chastised at elementary school & middle school games, AAU tournaments, and the variety of youth league games so much that they decide it’s not worth it. They can make $50.00 a night doing something that is far easier and a lot less stressful.
What a shame. The young people who finish playing their games after high school or college are the best candidates to become the next wave of officials. They love their games, want to stay involved in them, and want to give back to them, so they decide to become officials. But it doesn’t take very long (sometimes the very first game they officiate) for them to realize that it’s just no fun to give their effort to something that they just get yelled at mercilessly by people they don’t even know. So they quit.
The problem is that with them quitting and the older veteran officials quitting, the middle group of officials who have dealt with it long enough to get good at it and who also know what they are getting into but have developed a thicker skin to deal with it are not being developed. And so we have a shortage of officials.
What does this shortage mean? Games being re-scheduled and even cancelled because we don’t have enough officials available on certain nights and days. Games that are poorly officiated because there is not a veteran on the crew, so young, inexperienced, nervous officials are officiating games that are “out of their league” in terms of the skills and experience necessary to have a well-officiated game.
So where is it going? Unfortunately, we are headed to more of the above, but worse. We are headed to a time when we will not have games for our kids because there will be no one to officiate them. I’m sure some of you are thinking I am being melodramatic, that the day that happens will never come. I hope so, but I am worried. As an athletic director for 12 years, I saw the change happen before my eyes. In my last five years as an AD in two different states, I saw the number of games at both the high school and middle school level that we had to re-schedule or eventually cancel because of no officials increase dramatically, and I see nothing that would indicate the trend is being reversed.
It’s Up to Us
So how do we change it? That’s exactly it – WE CHANGE. The officials don’t need to change. They need to keep working hard at their craft, but most of them have always done that. We – coaches, athletes, parents, grandparents, and fans – need to stop behaving the way we are behaving. We need to cut them some slack, lay off them, and give them a break. We need to recognize that it is a thankless job that they are doing to help our children out.
We need to be grateful that they are out there trying to do their best. We need to treat them with dignity and respect, just like we would want to be treated if we were in their black patent leather sneakers. In other words, we need to treat them like the human beings that they are and that deserve to be treated like anyone else trying to make a little part of our world better.
If we don’t, then there is probably only one alternative – WE DO IT. We will need to become the officials for our kids’ games. Are we all ready for that? I doubt it. Because if we were, we would already be doing it.
So the next time you feel the urge to yell at an official because you feel that you saw better from 50 feet away and from a totally different angle and perspective what s/he saw five feet away, consider the alternative. Step up and do the right thing. Lay off of the officials. Otherwise, you may have to become one yourself if you want to see our games continue to be played.