Earning Their Stripes: Officials In Training – October 2007

Currently Supervisor of Officials for the WNBA, Dee Kantner began officiating in 1982 and is acknowledged as one of the top Division I referees. A few years ago Kantner said this about being a women’s basketball official:

“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. 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.”

And what are those positives? You get to stay close to the game you love; you stay in shape; you earn a little extra pocket money. And if you’re patient and good – and I mean really good – you might become one of the handful of Division I officials who do the job full-time and earn a six-figure income.

So where do these “positive” people start and how do they learn the craft? Well, if one imagines the officiating pool as a pyramid built on experience and shaped by geography and opportunity with Division 1 at its peak, its base – it’s foundation – is the high school official.

Every Journey Starts With A…Jump Ball
“The officials around here usually start out in recreation ball and work their way up from that point,” said John Kirk, now in his ninth year as supervisor of basketball officials for the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (D-2). “You’ve got to start somewhere [so] I advocate that they try this out first.” It can be a low stress position that requires a basic knowledge of the rules and might earn them $10-20 a game, but said Kirk, “after a period of time a lot of them we lose because they’re not really interested in it.”

Those who catch the officiating “bug” may upgrade to the high school level where varsity game fees can range between $50-70. To do so requires registration with the statewide or local officials association attached to their state’s high school athletic association, which usually entails an annual fee ($10-$75) and a written rules exam. For some associations that fee might go towards providing rulebooks, support materials, insurance or training, and most require, at the minimum, attendance at a meeting to go over current rule changes. Each state can have different standards and expectations around the skill-level an official might have before they’re assigned to a game. Not surprisingly, that can undermine the experience not just for the teams and coaches involved, but also for the officials themselves.

“People have to be trained and they have to be mentored,” urged Mary Struckhoff. Known to most college coaches as the NCAA coordinator of women’s basketball officiating, Struckhoff’s full-time job is as the assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations where she serves as editor and national rules interpreter for basketball and softball, staff liaison for the NFHS Officials Association, and coordinator of the new NFHS Officials Education Program. “What we have found in some of our exit interviews with folks who don’t last at the high school level — and usually they leave within the first three years — [the factors include] poor sportsmanship, yes, but they simply weren’t prepared. They did take a test and they got a book and somebody patted them on the behind and said, ‘Okay, go referee.’ And that doesn’t work.”

Over and Back
This lack of overall rigor reflects an old “sink or swim” paradigm that needs to be changed nationwide, especially if the profession hopes to develop a larger pool of more skilled officials who can, in turn, elevate the profession across the board. In Ohio, Struckhoff noted, “they actually require their officials to take a course before they get their license or registration.” The 25-30 hour course, explained Hank Zaborniak, Assistant Commissioner of the Ohio State Athletic Association, is a ”methodical way of teaching people about officiating – not just the rules, but about the culture and community of officiating.” Certainly it involves rule study and the mechanics of officiating, and the basics of where to get your uniform, but it also covers “how you deal with people in emotional situations, and thinking of players as student-athletes as opposed to just athletes.”

There was resistance to the program, acknowledged Struckhoff. “A lot of the vets are like, ‘No way, that’s a time commitment!’ But to a new person, that’s their paradigm. And they’ve said time and time again, ‘how can anybody ref and not take these courses?’ Their raw numbers are up and their retention is up because of that program. And that’s encouraging.”

The Charge
For present day high school officials willing and motivated enough to devote the time and money to improving their skills, there are several routes to go. The International Association of Approved Basketball Officials (IAABO) was founded in 1923, “to educate, train, develop, and provide continuous instruction for basketball officials.” IAABO has local “boards” in 38 states and often it’s these boards who assign officials to games. They offer training in basketball rules as well as the mechanics and techniques of officiating. Membership requires passing a written exam and a practical floor test, attending local meetings and annual dues ($35).

Additionally, across the country there are referees and coordinators from all levels who offer training clinics that can run several days and cost between $100-$450 (meals, housing and travel may cost extra). Dan Picard, for example, is the camp director of the Referee School in the Boston area. The ECAC (Division-III) coordinator of women’s basketball officials in the New England area, he is also responsible for assignments at over 50 eastern Massachusetts high schools. His organization offers two clinics: one focused on improving the skills of high school officials with less than three years of varsity experience, and the other to support those interested in moving up to the college level and learning the CCA Women’s 3-person system (Massachusetts high schools still use the 2-person system).

They try to strike the balance between classroom time devoted to rules, logistics and strategies and on-court game work with real-time feedback by the area’s top officials. The coordinator-run clinics serve strictly for training or become a tryout for new members of a conference’s officiating pool. Picard has his camp staff vote on the newest Division-III referees because, as he noted, “I tell them that if they think this person has the skills, in all likelihood they’re the ones who are going to be working with them next year.”

TV Time Out
Technology offers far more training tools available to today than their predecessors. Just as coaches and players break down tape, video and DVD’s allow for individualized and in-depth analysis of an official’s work. Message boards and forums at sites like NFHS.com, Referee.com, and the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO.org) provide a forum for national discussion and reflection. The ever-expanding NCAA officiating site eofficials.com, which officials (and coaches) at all levels can access for free, is setting itself up as a primary source of information and education. Uploaded “You make the call video clips” are essential, explained Struckhoff, because “the more plays you can see, obviously the better prepared our folks are. We can show them time and time again, ‘This is a travel, this is a block and this is a charge.’ And then we translate that in to positioning adjustments.”

The rules, philosophies, interpretations as well as points of emphasis as laid out by the Rules Committee are also available. In the past, clarity of that message has been lost as it’s been translated through coordinator to officials. Additionally, there’s been a “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” philosophy which expects referees who work under several different coordinators to make a call differently because Coordinator A has a different personal interpretation than Coordinator B (quick held ball call vs. strict reading of the rule, strong emphasis on palming vs. not). Being in that position makes it more likely that an official might make a mistake because they’re second-guessing themselves. It is hoped that the ability to refer to eofficials.com throughout the year will reinforce a unified approach, and support the consistency of interpretation across Divisions and throughout the season.

The Blocks
Even with all these available training opportunities, a huge number of “potential greats” go untapped because of the balance between time and money. The simple reality is that for the vast majority of referees officiating is a job on top of a full-time job. Hired as “independent contractors,” officials are responsible for their taxes, health insurance, and there’s nothing resembling sick days or workman’s comp. True, they have the luxury of saying “yes” or “no” to an assignment, but it’s unlikely anyone trying to make it in the profession would refuse an assignment– you go wherever the assigner tells you.

Once assigned, you need to have a job that allows you leave early so you can to get to your site – and do that three or four times a week. Calculate in travel time to-and-from the site, and an hour pre-game to the actual game time. Now add in a month long, 10-hours per week pre-season prep that includes rule study, fitness training and meetings. How does the $60 varsity game fee look now?

At the high school level, an established high school official might travel 30 minutes to a game while a newbie might drive ninety. Moving up into the college ranks means the distances increase. Picard points to a somewhat extreme, but not unusual example of Bowdoin College. Up in Maine, it’s of the top Division III programs in the country and wants the best referees from the area. The experience gained from refereeing that high-level of basketball is essential for an up-and-coming official who wants to move into the Division II ranks. But if that referee is in the Boston area, it’s at least five hours round-trip. Are they willing to spend all day Saturday traveling? If it’s on a weekday, can they get out of their day job early enough? Is it really worth the $130-plus-mileage fee, when you can get the same (though, granted, not as good competition) nearby? How often per week are they willing to make that kind of trip?

And there’s a flip side: Can the school’s athletic budget actually afford the fee and the mileage (which might add up to more than the fee)? Is getting a “really good” official versus an “okay” official worth it over the course of a long season? If it isn’t, it can undermine the growth of an official because, however much they study the rules, break down video or talk through scenarios, they all need to apply those skills in live action to high-quality play.

“Right off the bat there’s a certain amount of commitment for very little money,” acknowledged Zaborniak. “If you think, ‘If I work five years and then get a gig in the Big East where I’m going to make $600-700 a game, that’s not a bad investment.’ But what about over 10 years? I don’t know that our coaches recognize the kind of commitment it takes for somebody to officiate when they also have a professional life and,” he laughed, “maybe even a family. All those things work against us as we try and develop people.”

Clock Management
Assigners and coordinators play a major role in the successful elevation of an official through the ranks. In many ways Patty Broderick, as the supervisor of a consortium of conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, Summit, Conference USA, Horizon League, Mid-American, Missouri Valley Conference, and the Great Lakes Valley Conference (Division-II)), has the ideal set up to do just that. She outlines a five to seven year process: “I can bring them in and start refereeing some Division II,” explained Broderick, “and if they’re good, bone up their schedule (10-20 games). Maybe get them in to the Division II Conference Tournament. If they get to that level, maybe start them out in small Division I, see how they do there. Beef up their schedule a little bit, maybe get them to do an early game in a tournament and now we see, “Oh, yes, they can go in to the major conferences.’”

Coordinators choose who gets the “plum” assignments, when someone is ready to deal with a challenging coach, and try and put together a balanced team of officials. “I think a coordinator has to do a better job at assigning officials to games,” added Broderick. “They can make an official look good. You know you’re not going to take a rookie and throw them in the Tennessee-Texas game. For God’s sake, you’ve set them up to fail right off the bat. But you can take them and put them in against Tennessee and Podunk U. Put them with a strong official, a couple of veterans and then they’re going to be able to earn their stripes.”

If coaches are concerned about the officials in their conference, Struckhoff encourages them to go to their commissioners and ask some the questions. “Tell me about our officiating program? How do we pay our people? How are we set up for travel? I’ve never seen a coordinator or observer at my site – why is that?” The answers they get may inspire positive change.

Overtime
While it’s universally agreed that expanding the pool of new officials would increase the numbers of skilled individuals advancing to the upper-echelon, recruiting new people to the profession has been a struggle. If you think Division I coaches are clamoring for more and better officials listen, said Struckhoff, to her NFHS constituency which is constantly saying, “Forget Division I. Where’s our next generation of officials coming from at the high school level?” And their concerns should be listened to by all parties because, as Zaborniak pointed out, “They don’t train ’em in the WNBA. They may fine tune them or hone them. But they don’t train them there. We train ’em.”

“There is not one answer,” explained Struckhoff, “but what we’re trying to do at [the high school] level “is get back in to our school and say, ‘Look, if there were a teacher shortage would you expect the teachers to go out and get more teachers? No.’ And that’s the same for officiating. You can’t necessarily expect officials to go out and get their replacements. There’s an inherent conflict there. Quite frankly, most of our officials are like, ‘Hey, I’m getting a full schedule. I’m happy.’” “Now there are some really good folk out there who are mentoring and who are recruiting officials,” she underscored, “[and] we’re trying to work with those [experienced] officials in how to do those things. We also go to the schools and say, ‘Hey, we need your help in many ways. And one is to start planting seed with your student-athletes about what to do when their playing days are over. But also, you could do us a big favor – and I’m talking at all levels now, not just high school – to check if your coaches are behaving themselves. Because every 15 to 22-year-old that I’ve ever approached about officiating and said, ‘Hey, you should think about it…’ their response is, ‘No way. No way! I’ve seen how my coaches treat officials. I’ve seen how my parents treat officials.’”

“It’s an ‘It takes a village’ kind of thing,” concluded Struckhoff. “We can’t just keep pointing the finger at the officials or the schools to do it. It’s a very comprehensive program, and if we can make strides in sportsmanship and we can make strides in accountability and consistency and all the things that we’re talking about, it bodes well for the whole avocation.”

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