Making the Calls: The World of Referees

There’s little doubt Title IX and the evolution of the female athlete have changed how women’s basketball is played, coached and marketed. But the impact on those who officiate the games is rarely acknowledged. While coaches, players and fans often rail against the officiating, there often is a lack of understanding and appreciation of not only the basics but, as it were, of the art of reffing.

“What’s expected of officials now has increased exponentially,” says Dee Kantner, a Division I ref for 19 years and currently Director of Referee Development for the WNBA. “You used to just show up, stretch out a little, go out on the floor, and boom, you’re done,” she recalls. “Not anymore. These athletes are quicker and stronger. They’re doing things that a lot of people aren’t used to seeing. You just don’t show up at the game and expect to be sharp and work the games to the top level it needs.”

The overall supervision of officials at the college level has intensified as conferences look to make officials more accountable. “When you look at the dollars teams invest in their season, what the NCAA invests in them and what it means to make the playoffs, it’s big business,” says Becky Campbell, Coordinator of Women’s Basketball Officials for the Big XII, Sun Belt and Southland Conferences. Collegiate officials who work 75-80 games can make $50,000 to $100,000 a year. “If [referees] want to keep up with the game, they have to put in more time and be more committed, just like the players and coaches are.”

Referees are expected to do an enormous amount of game preparation, including reviewing tape and researching team’s capabilities. Before a game the crew chief, usually the most senior of the three officials (referee, umpire 1 and 2), will initiate meetings with all the other officials (personnel at the scorers table are considered part of the crew), as well as a lead a 30-minute discussion amongst the 3-person crew to review the basics – media time outs, NCAA updates, coverage areas, etc.

Personal style will be addressed, adds Cathi Cornell, a Division I referee in the Los Angeles area. “Every referee has their own tolerance on what they’re going to deal with,” she says.

Towards the end of the season, she adds, the discussion will expand to include sharing coaches and player tendencies, and offenses that they run. After the game, all three officials collaborate on the post-game report. Submitted by the crew chief, it identifies trends of the game, notes if there were match-up issues, such as players who might be carry a grudge from one game to the next, and records any technical or flagrant fouls, as well as any atypical situations.

Division I referees attend summer clinics run by conference supervisors and, before the season begins, there is an extensive film-training program. The game tape review continues throughout the season, explains Margie McDonald, coordinator of the Mountain West Conference women’s officials. Additionally, there are observers at every Division I game, “I watch every conference game,” says McDonald. “Then I send the referees clips with comments like, ‘This is a great call. I know the coaches didn’t like it, but you can see from the video it was a great call.’ Or, ‘Hmm, would you like to have this one back?’ or, ‘I don’t see the travel.’ They get back to me and we talk about what I said.”

The best refs, observes McDonald have an over-abundance of self-confidence and aren’t all that concerned about external criticism. “I call it ‘external criticism,’ because all of the good ones also must have a very active internal critique of themselves,” she explains. “When their inner critique matches the external criticism, then they have to be open to express the fact that they blew it. Not everybody can do that.”

In the WNBA, officials are provided laptop computers so they can access a website specifically designed for them. There are weekly tests, bulletins that identify points of emphasis, or they can download plays that show both good calls or missed calls. There are even click-on “You make the call” plays to practice with. As with college officials, they have to fill out reports on what happened during the game. Five to 10 minutes after the game they are given a game tape to review in the locker room or at their hotel.

While a tremendous amount of time is spent on the rules, notes Patty Broderick, Supervisor of Officials for the WNBA and several college conferences, “we spend an inordinate amount of time on the people-person skills. There’s a lot of philosophical parts to officiating besides just the black and white,” says Broderick. “There is the common sense of the game, the parts which includes human beings and judgments that are just not in a rule book.

“By definition fouls are contact, and we all know you don’t call every single solitary bit of contact,” she continues. “It would be a foul-fest, and who’d want to come watch that? You have people running up and down the court showcasing their talents, and then you’ve got officials who are supposed to be using their judgment to decide whether or not they’re going whistle a foul or a violation.”

An example would be the question of “advantage/disadvantage.”

“A girl’s going to the hoop and she gets her arm grabbed,” says Cornell, “but at the same time gets the ball off to a person who’s underneath the basket. Are you going to call that a foul or are you going to let it go so they have a shot at the two points?,” she asks. “If you’re asking if that’s a foul, yes, it is. But you’re taking away two potential points.”

Of course, as rules are imposed to “improve” the game, coaches look for ways to circumvent them. For instance, says Broderick, “You can’t touch a dribbler with the hand. Well, now the players use more of their body. So now we have to put some philosophical things in place, like, is it ‘displacement.’ Do they take them out of rhythm and upset their speed and quickness. Does it have an affect on the play? Did that bump, that tip on the arm, did that make her miss the shot, or did that little bump all of a sudden get turned [by the shooter] into them falling all over the place?”

In the professional game, and sometimes in the collegiate game they’ve gotten really good at acting and being demonstrative,” she adds. “Fool the Ref,” officials call it, an attempt to draw the foul and put things to your advantage by creating something that really didn’t happen. “Because they’re so athletic and so good at it, you’ve got to try and figure out, ‘Is that a fake or did she really get pushed’?”

An ironic complication, says Broderick, is that “we want physical play. We don’t want people saying, ‘The women can’t block shots. The women don’t want to apply any pressure, and they don’t want to play with any physicality.’ We just don’t want it to get rough – and it’s a fine line between being physical and getting rough.”

Fans and coaches often get on refs for a “late” whistle. “That’s certainly not a sign of weakness, but many people perceive it as such,” says Campbell. “It’s one of the key teaching points in officiating. It’s much better to have a slow, delayed whistle than a quick whistle and not be able to take it back. It’s one of the hardest things to teach, because you want to immediately react. But so many times, as our players have gotten more athletic, they can get out of a situation that would have been, ten years ago, a definite block or charge. With their body control, they can make it in to an athletic play without a foul.”

The mechanics of reffing – how one signals an offensive or defensive foul, what a travel or 30-second clock violation looks like – are recognizable to most, but few realize that mechanics also guide where officials move.

“We have a place to be that nobody really cares about, but we have to know it,” says Kantner. The “lead” official is on the baseline, the “trail” official is at about the 28′ mark and the “slot” official is at about the free throw line extended. “You should have the lead and trail together on one side of the floor and the slot on the other side.”

The system involves a constant rotation so no official is always covering the same area. “The ball dictates the position of the officials, and the lead dictates the rotation. On a fast break, the trail is going to bust out to become the new lead,” she explains. “If the ball says on that strong side, we don’t need to rotate. But if it goes to the weak side, now we’re initiating a rotation.”

Not only is there constant communication between the three officials, they must also communicate with the players and the coaches. “I’m in my fourth year of Division I, and I’m just learning to come up with quick answers that hit the point,” says Cornell. “You need to be able to communicate with coaches and players, and do it quickly, because you don’t have a lot of time on a dead ball. It’s an emotional game, but we can’t be. Watch the referees, they bring calmness to the game.”

If she, herself, feels she’s getting emotional, she’ll go to talk with one of her partners and they’ll pull each other back. “Sometimes it’s a matter of finding relaxation techniques on the court – a deep breath or pulling your shoulders back,” she says.

Rule changes or confusions often create unnecessary tension between officials and coaches. Campbell creates tapes to show NCAA coaches what she’s teaching and why certain things are being called. While she acknowledges coaches are often accused of “working” officials, she notes “the most effective coaches are the ones who know when to question and when to ask, rather than question everything. Certainly we teach officials to respond to questions and to admit mistakes when they know they blew a call, because they are certainly human and that will happen.”

“Now, there’s time in a game, the last minutes of a close, tight ball game, you just have to be damn near perfect,” says Broderick. And, she adds, “there are moments when it gets heated, but, the officials at every level are trained never to lose it. The refs don’t care who wins, so it’s very easy for them to be neutral, to apply the rules with all their knowledge and the feeling in their gut.”

“The referees make it an even playing field for both teams to win within the rules of the games,” says Campbell. “That might sound nebulous, but that’s why it’s an art. The more intense the game, the more of an art it is, because they have to block out the crowd, and make sure the calls they make are not something they jumped on too quickly.”

A majority of referees have played basketball themselves and officiating is a way of continuing their relationship with a game they love.

“It’s not a vocation or an avocation that a lot of people innately say, ‘That’s what I want to be,’ because there’s so much negativity surrounding it,” Kantner notes. “Everyone’s always focusing on the bad things about it: people yell at you, you wear bad polyester. But those are far outweighed by the positives.

“It’s been a great game to me throughout my life,” she adds. “Players are getting better, we need to continually work at our craft to stay with those players, to referee the game at the level those talented players deserve.”

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