Coaches and Officials: Reaching Across the Divide – July 2006

Gamesmanship.

For some, it’s as much a part of the game as the squeak of basketball shoes. Getting that intangible advantage can be reflected in how a coach works the media, a player, the other coach or, for the purpose of this discussion, an official.

Consider this recent example: Watching a nationally televised game between the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun and Detroit Shock, the Shock were making a furious comeback. On an inbound play, Detroit center Ruth Riley was called for a foul – probably her fourth, maybe her fifth. Immediately Detroit head coach Bill Laimbeer, all 6’11”, 260 pounds of him, loomed over official Lisa Mattingly (who’s got to be 5’8” or so on a good day), saying “Oh, that’s a terrible call. A terrible call! And millions of people are watching on television and seeing what a bad call that is. That’s a horrible call,” he continued, “and it’s all out there on national T.V. for everyone to see.”

Never mind the fact that the replay clearly showed the television audience the correct call was made, it was obvious he was using his physical size, his recognition of the media exposure (both coaches were miked), and the pressure of a close game, (imagine if it had been at Detroit!) to try and influence how the game was being called -– though it is hard to imagine how that might work on such an experienced official as Mattingly.

Defining the Line
I’m sure many have witnessed, if not practiced, a variation of these tactics. But when, and how often, does the world of gamesmanship cross the line into disrespect, even abuse?

“I’ve been intrigued by this notion,” reflected Wellesley head coach Kathy Hagerstrom, “that we can yell at the officials, but they can’t yell at us. Officials can’t go to me as a coach and say, ‘What they heck were you thinking with that substitution?’ They can’t go to the kid and say, ‘That was a shot?’ Yet, I’m on the sidelines and if I choose to, I can berate the official in public.”

There’s no denying the growth of the women’s game, greater media exposure, and higher salaries and expectations has put everyone under greater scrutiny and, consequently, put extra pressure on the relationship between coaches and officials. But it’s hard to ignore the increased rumblings of “us vs. them” that has entered the debate.

Whether it be from the stands, on internet message boards, discussed by broadcasters or print journalists, or talked about by coaches (admit it, kvetching about officiating takes up an inordinate amount of time at conference meetings), there seems to be a growing polarization fueled by a belief – real or perceived – that officiating has not kept up to the game. Honestly, if there’s a punching bag in contemporary women’s basketball, it’s probably wearing a black and white stripped shirt.

The question is, are we comfortable with this kind of relationship and, if not, is there something to be done to change it?

And We Should Care Why?
Okay, say you believe all the negatives about women’s officiating and your attitude is reflected in your interaction with officials on the court and in the media. So what? Well, on a profoundly self-serving level, if you’re interested in newer, better officials ask yourself, “Why would they find the job attractive?”

“Coaches want former players to get in to officiating, because they think they’ll have a better feel about being an official,” says Barb Jacobs, who as the Assistant Commissioner for the Big East coordinates their officials as well as those of the America East. But, she continues, look at what’s being modeled to future prospects: “I’m a player and you’re a coach,” role-plays Jacobs. “I’m playing for you and you berate the official up one side and down the other. You yell at them, you talk about them when you do film review. You’re not polite to them. You think I‘m going to want to be an official? Absolutely not.”

Even if athletes do try officiating, reports Kaye Garms, supervisor of basketball officials for the WAC, a lot of them have a simple, visceral response: “’Oh, man, I don’t know how you do this. I don’t want to get yelled at.’ People,” Garms notes bluntly, “don’t like to get yelled at.”

So, given the option between a job outside basketball and officiating, which do you think a player is more likely to take? And it’s not just a question of looking to replace or upgrade the officiating corps one-for-one. Since Title IX was passed, the number of games at all levels has increased exponentially and so has the need for officials. But the reality is the potential pool of quality candidates is dwindling.

Job Openings Available
“It’s certainly not a field that’s really popular by any means,” says Mary Struckhoff,” who serves as Assistant Director of the National Federation of High Schools and was recently named as the coordinator of NCAA women’s basketball officiating. The NCAA, conference coordinators and other organizations associated with referees are actively addressing the situation. “I really think what we’re trying to do is bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It can’t be ‘us’ and ‘them’ because when coaches think of officials as their enemy, that’s reflected in their program.”

While she understands that emotion and volatility are a part of the sports work, “if we’re in an educational setting,” notes Struckhoff, “we look at [the court] as an extension of the classroom. We certainly allow behaviors that we wouldn’t allow in the classroom, and some of that is understandable. But where’s the line? We’ve allowed some of that to happen. And at what point are we going to take it back?”

“We’ve got to get rid of that mentality of the ‘necessary evil,’ so to speak,” explains Struckhoff, “and say, ‘Hey, everybody’s part of the game and we need everybody to succeed. It’s a paradigm shift.” Obviously, student-athletes are encouraged to explore careers in coaching, administration or broadcasting. More often than not, officiating is not even considered as an option. The question that needs to be answered is not ‘Who are we going to get to referee tomorrow?’, but who’s going to referee in the next 8-10 years? “If we don’t help to be part of the solution,” says Struckhoff, “we’re going to have a problem for a really long time.”

Yes, but Aren’t All Officials…
Jacobs, herself a former coach, admits that when she moved into the officiating side, she also brought with her pre-conceived notions of officials. “When I was coaching, I felt that they just collected a paycheck, they didn’t really care about anything other than getting the money. That they didn’t care about doing it the right way, about keeping themselves in shape. Many of the officials that we had early on were these big, old fat balding men that were kind of let go from the men’s side and gravitated to the women’s side.”

“And then, once I met and got involved with the officials, I was like, ‘Wow.’ Most of them, I’d say 80-90% of them, really, really work at this. It’s an avocation. It’s something that they really, really want to do. Though I’m not sure why,” she adds with a laugh.

Misconceptions, says Jacobs, are something she tries to address directly and proactively within her conference. Be it “make-up calls” (“If they ever were to do that, they wouldn’t be officiating for me”), or holding grudges (“It’s amazing, they have the thickest skin of anyone I’ve ever met”) or that officials have preconceived idea about who’s going to win a game and officiate accordingly. Consider, for a moment, how that statement would hold up if applied to coaches. You’re a mid-major team going in to play, let’s say, Tennessee. If Vegas were making odds, they would not be in your favor. That might reflect a perceived “reality,” but how does it impact your actions? Do you coach accordingly and undermine your players, or do you do everything in your power to make it the best game possible? Why is it so difficult to assume the same about officials?

Opposite Points of View
Intriguingly enough, there seems to be a significant disconnect between the coaching and officiating worlds in their opinion of the current state of officiating. Consider a recent survey asked if the block/charge was being correctly called. Close to 90% of the officials thought it was. Coaches? Less than 20%. And yet, when you talk to supervisors across the board, there’s no doubt in their mind that not only has the overall officiating has improved, but that it’s going in the right direction. Clearly people are not on the same page.

“I think we have to do a better of tooting our own horn as an officiating profession on what we do to make our officials better,” says Marcy Weston, recently retired after 20 plus years as the national coordinator of NCAA women’s basketball officials. “We need to tell people what we do. Not that it makes us great, but it shows we are taking this seriously and we do work on it.”

“Officials today are more educated, more dedicated, do more self-evaluation, have better training programs, than they ever have,” continues Weston. At the top level, for instance, a majority officials travel with laptops and constantly review game film provided by their conferences. “In the last four years more resources have been put in to the officiating programs by every conference and, certainly, by the NCAA with their website and their staffing in the office.” Four regional advisors have been added to monitor and evaluate officials to ensure proper application of the points of emphasis as defined by the Women’s Basketball Rules Committee, and there’s been a push to add more content and education elements to the webpage. Recently, a partnership with eOfficals.com has been formed. And yet, says Weston with a tinge of exasperation, “the more we do, the worse we get.”

Two familiar words
So what is it that coaches want and what’s being done to meet those needs? The two most constant concerns are a desire for consistency and accountability. Accountability can be broken down into two parts, says Struckhoff. First, what is an official is doing to better themselves on their own or through accessing the national officiating program? “That’s putting up plays on the website,” explains Struckhoff, “rules quizzes and tests. We’ve got some things in place and it’s growing.”

The other part is what Struckhoff calls “The Pound of Flesh,” where accountability means a coach asks, “If they mess up are you going to fire them?” The answer, responds Patty Broderick, Coordinator of (amongst others) the Big Ten Conference, is no. “If your player messes up are you going to kick her off the team?” she asks. “No, we’re going to sit down with [the official] and look at tape. If we get a pattern, and we get a constant, and it continues, then we have a problem. That’ll maybe get them suspended for a game or two. Maybe their schedule will be reduced. And maybe we’ll let them go. But we’ve got to have some kind of tolerance,” she pleads, or newer officials won’t ever have a chance – or inclination — to improve and move up the ranks.

As for the quest for consistency, Broderick will say that about 60% of complaints about a “lack of consistency” across a season can be attributed to the learning curve of both players and coaches: as they understand and internalize the points of emphasis, they make the necessary adjustments and (ideally) fewer fouls will be called. It’s that 40% she and others are concentrating on: a consistency of message and getting people to buy in to the intent of the overall officiating goals. Understanding what’s being expected and doing it from November to March.

In the past, communicating that message out from the Rules Committee, through the twenty-four Division 1 coordinators to their 900 officials – and then to an additional 2,100 Division 2 and 3 officials– has been like the childhood game of telephone: as the message was passed down, it might degrade with each translator until at the end of the chain it bore little resemblance to the original. Officials applied what they were told by supervisors or remembered from clinics and, as the season progressed, clarity and specificity could devolve.

Recently, some conferences that had the money and self-initiative created websites for their officials with video that demonstrated rules and offered interpretations. Now that process is unified to support clarity through constant reinforcement. The NCAA has put clips up on their site and offered that site address to every official (and, if they wish, coach) in the country. “Now,” says Weston, “you’re getting people watching the same thing with the same interpretation.”

That being said, notes Struckhoff, “we’re always going to deal with consistency issues because we’re dealing with human beings. Kids don’t shoot 100% and we don’t get 100% of [the calls] right. But we’re really trying to keep that number high.”

Stay close, but not too close
One of the practical challenges facing coaches and officials is the question of collegiality. Gone are the days when, recalled Weston, the two worlds mingled freely and officials all but donated their services. Schools saved money by having the officials ride the team bus, coaches all but picked their referees and thought nothing of going out for dinner after a game. “Did anyone say you cheated?” asks Weston. “No. They hired you because they thought you were the best around. They thought you were relatively fair, not perfect.”

All officials are independent contractors, and while the money at the top conferences in Division 1 can be very good ($800-$1200 a game) only a handful earn their money exclusively thorough refereeing. The majority have other full-time jobs and, at the lower levels, their fees are one step away from a donation. Yet, across the divisions there has been a professionalization of the work that has demanded a certain distancing. Officials are brought in through the side entrance to avoid players and coaches, take care to shake the hand of each coach exactly the same amount of time and, if a crew goes out to dinner, make sure there are no fans nearby to overhear conversations. It has pushed officiating into a sort of “Secret Society”, notes Heather Perry, NCAA Associate Director of Playing Rules Administration, not because they’ve wanted it, “but because we’ve asked it of them.”

When you consider what some of the “perks” that go along with becoming an official – some extra pocket change, staying in shape, giving back to the game you love – “staying close the game” means something slightly different than those in the coaching or administrative ranks. There’s no denying that there will always be an element of “us vs. them,” but it would serve the profession well to ponder ways to bridge that gap and support a degree of civility between the two. It might be as simple as having a Graduate Assistant to greet the officials and stand outside their locker door or as interactive as inviting officials to pre-season practices to discuss the thinking between rule changes and points of emphasis or talk about officiating as a profession. Perhaps the WBCA could sponsor some small coach-official panels with a good mix of old and new people. Golf outings in the summer might seem too familiar to some, but the overall goal would be, to a degree, to re-humanize officials.

It’s not about everyone becoming best friends, per say, but “when you know somebody,” says Weston, “you tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. Now they can still be wrong, but your thought is not ‘You’re an idiot.’ Your first thought is, ‘You’re prepared, you know what you’re doing.… Ooooo, that was close but you could be right.’”

Rules: Turning Black and White into Art
Just as in coaching, there’s a science to officiating (was a foot out of bounds, did the shot clock re-set) and an art that involves personal judgment. “They tell the officials that, ‘We want you to provide a safe environment for both teams to showcase their talents, and have an equal opportunity to win,’” explains Broderick. “In my opinion you’ve got to find some balance. One coach might say ‘Let’em play,’ while another would say, ‘I want that touch call,’ and another might say ‘I want this degree [of physical contact].’ In my opinion, you’ve got to find some balance. If you called everything we’d be there all day long and then everybody would moan and groan, ‘Let’em play! Let’em play.’”

“Officials have to get out there and talk about the philosophical part of the game,” suggests Broderick, talk about advantage/disadvantage, for instance. “If there was a bump,” she explains, ”and they were able to maintain their balance and it didn’t make them step out of bounds, travel or miss a shot, then that’s incidental contact. That’s a play on. Incidental contact is a big part of the game,” notes Broderick. “We have to decide what’s incidental and what puts [the player] at a disadvantage. So, you’re going to have some inconsistencies, because you’ve got different kinds of kids playing ball, different kinds of coaches coaching the game, different styles that are played, and you have a whole variety of different officials.”

Rules: The Devil is in the Details
“I’m not speaking for all the coaches in America, but I know I don’t know the rule book like the back of my hand,” admits UNC-Asheville’s Betsy Blose. “I mean, do I even know it? Because I think that’s sometimes why we question it.” As an example, Broderick tells the story of the coach who called to complain that on an inbounds, the player who received the ball hadn’t done so within the allowed five seconds. “It’s five seconds to release the ball,” she explained. “Oh,” answered the coach. “How long has that been the rule?” “About twenty years,” Broderick deadpanned.

After four years on the Rules Committee, Hagestrom has gotten to carrying a rulebook with her. “There are definitely situations where I know – in the moment – I know I’m right and he’s wrong. And then I’ll go to the rulebook and I’ll be, “Oh, oh, I was wrong. And the next time I see that guy, I’m telling him. I’m telling him because I want him knowing I did go to the rule book, and I want him, somewhere down the road, doing something similar.”

The Art of Conversation
Returning to the question of gamesmanship, Weston has noticed “join-in syndrome” when it comes to the impact of the media talking about coaches who “work” officials. “When we talk about it, everyone feels, ‘I’m too quiet. I’ve got to get more involved. The other coaches in the league, they’re all over them. I have to weigh in because it looks like I’m not protecting my players.’ Communication is always good. It’s always good. But,” asks Weston, “to what purpose?”

“Every coach I listened to were the ones that talked to me the least,” notes Weston, “and the quality of what they said to me was worth listening to.” Struckhoff, a long time official, adds that questions like, ‘Tell me what she’s doing so I can help her,’ or ‘Tell me what you saw?’ are far more likely to get a response than, ‘Mary, the fouls are seven to one.’ First,” says Struckhoff, “there’s no question there. Secondly, if there is, you’re questioning my integrity. You’re telling me I’m cheating. Ask me in a way that you would want to be asked. Ask me something I can react to, and not question my integrity and not accuse me of cheating.”

“I believe the integrity of an official is just like the Hippocratic Oath of a doctor,” says Broderick. “[Officials] take an oath to go out there and be fair, true, unbiased, neutral, and don’t care who wins or loses the game. But they do have to be a big part of judgment calls. They do have to adjudicate the rules and call the points of emphasis, which means somebody’s going like it and somebody’s not going to like it. Because the game is winning and losing.”

“I tell my coaches we’re going to agree, we’re going to agree to disagree and we’re going to disagree,” Broderick adds. “But the bottom line is we’re professionals and we love this game. We have got to be civil about what we’re talking about, what we’re doing, and work together.”

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