By Tim Sloan
Want to keep your officiating career on track? Here are a few things to avoid.
The pages of Referee often feature the do’s for landing the next big game and breaking into the next level. But equally important to furthering an officiating career is avoiding the don’ts — the things that draw negative attention to ourselves and make it harder to fill our officiating dance card.
For sure, there are “special causes” that can cut back our assignments. Slugging the coach, ratting out the concession stand to the health department or parking in the handicapped spot all come to mind. But let’s examine the laundry list of boneheaded decisions that some of our guild routinely pull — even if they don’t realize it. They embarrass/annoy/piss off our assigners to the point that the Maytag repairman looks like a workaholic in contrast. If you want to spend more time doing less as an official, remember to include some of these gambits in your repertoire:
1. Dump assignments OK, everybody now and then has a work commitment come up on short notice. Hey, sometimes your grandmother dies — but three times? The best assigners know enough to hedge against the unexpected and keep a small stable of super subs, but you don’t want to test their patience and get them writing your name in pencil. Honor your commitments or find another avocation.
2. Double-book yourself Once or twice a year, I see emails — dripping with angst and self-flagellation — from officials who realized they took two games on the same day and have to punt one. Some actually offer the “better” game because it was the second one offered. It can happen, but when “disorganization” becomes a pattern, your growth prospects are about as good as a three-legged zebra’s. A cunning variation of that strategy is accepting a game and then being offered a better assignment for the same day: The perp takes the second with the excuse he or she hasn’t received a contract yet on the original assignment.
3. Make a liar out of Werner Heisenberg The German physicist’s Uncertainty Principle is that there’s a limit to knowing two related properties of a particle at the same time. How, then, do you beg off of the mandatory clinic because you need root canal work but get caught sipping a cold one at the Cubs’ game at the same time? It’s much, much easier to keep the truth straight than lies. If the demands of keeping up your officiating commitments don’t jive with your social life, stop kidding yourself and other people. Choose one or the other.
4. Defraud your assigner
I remember sitting in the locker room one time, 45 minutes before a Thursday night college game, nervously waiting for half the crew to show up. The referee, umpire and back judge were already 75 minutes late when they finally strolled in, already in uniform. Seems the high school game they just worked ran a little long, and traffic was a bear. I also remember the game ending 86-21 and there being three misapplications of rules that I couldn’t talk people into changing. While officiating isn’t important in the grand scheme of things, it should become the only thing in your life once you earn someone’s trust, commit to an assignment and back your car out of the driveway. Nowadays, they talk about dressing one level above your customer in a business meeting; the corollary is treating your assignment with as much commitment as the people playing in it. Give them your best rather than what you have left because your narcissism kicked in again.
5. Be a prima donna When you’re acting the part I described in the previous segment, it’s important not to hire a skywriter to remind people. Be humble and empathize a bit. There’s a difference between being right in how you handle an assignment and being dead right. I once worked a soccer match with a guy who declared that he wasn’t leaving without his game fee. It didn’t matter to him that the team treasurer had been unexpectedly hospitalized and a mailed check had already been promised. So, there were the club chairman and president on their hands and knees, emptying their pockets of crumpled bills and loose change to pay Tony so the rest of us could hit the road. Sure, there are all sorts of subplots to go with anecdotes like that one, but if your pattern becomes being a pain in the rear about your definition of “principles,” either you’re wrong for the league or the league’s wrong for you — and it will only play out one way.
6. Undermine your fellow officials Now, I’m pretty good with computers and know how most of the thingies work for the TV, but I don’t understand Facebook, Twitter and whatever else. Oh, I know what you do with them; I just don’t understand why it’s anybody’s business what music I like or, more to the point, what I thought of the referees in last night’s game at state. Somewhere, too many officials have concluded that criticizing another official is protected speech on social media for which they cannot be held accountable. Maybe it’s “free” — from the perspective that you can’t go to jail for it — but it’s very costly if you think it will help your career. Let’s see: It brings your objectivity into question; it antagonizes prospective partners; it makes your assigner question your motives; and it erases any chance you’ll have for the benefit of the doubt, should you ever need it. Here’s a rule of thumb: If HR might get involved if you said the same thing at work that you just wrote about another official on Facebook, you probably shouldn’t have written it. The officiating community has a way of running off bad eggs.
Be humble and empathize a bit. There’s a difference between being right in how you handle an assignment and being dead right.
7. Be a high-maintenance partner This story, just in: An officiating assignment should be something you look forward to for the game itself, the events surrounding it and the officials with whom you work. Your crewmates should be thinking the same thing. Having said that, the Apollo 11 astronauts — for all their fame — were not a close-knit trio, tending to go their separate ways after work. The Apollo 12 crew, by comparison, was a 24/7 party, right down to their matching gold Corvettes. The Apollo 7 crew alienated themselves so thoroughly the ground controllers mused about having them splash down in a hurricane. A crew — any kind of a crew — can function well together without necessarily even liking each other if they can keep their focus on the prime objective. Make no mistake, however, that crew leaders — any kind of crew leaders — have some say in crew selection. If you’re the type of crewmate who develops a rep — from your toenail clipping to your inflated ego — of grating on others, you will find your opportunities and schedule starting to dwindle.
Let’s see … oh, yes; there’s one other item on the list which bears mention:
8. Suck We can look at most of the previous items on this list as “qualifiers” (or not) to work games. Generally, if you have only limited symptoms of some of the diseases covered, they might be tolerated if you show an ability to part the waters once out between the lines. General Patton wasn’t revered by everyone in the Third Army, but he was good at winning battles, so they went along with him. Hey, many of us played for a coach we loathed, but we finished 9-2 and a lot was forgotten. That being the case, there is no more sure-fire way to ruin a career than by becoming a certified liability. To achieve that, try these time-tested behaviors: Don’t work at the rules. Set aside sanctioned mechanics in favor of your own. Don’t keep up your conditioning. Be a distraction. Let the teams get to you. Let the fans get to you. Let your significant other get to you. Let your pride get to you. Don’t attend clinics because you “won’t learn anything.” Consider your own perspective to be sacrosanct. Don’t consider others better than yourself. Believe it’s more important to protect yourself than to serve the game.
Every event in your officiating career is an experience — whether it’s a positive one or negative is up to you. You start heading down the road to ruin when you make too many experiences negative for you, those around you or your assigner. Most officials who I see fail in some sense have a false and sad sense of entitlement when it comes right down to it. They burn out because the combination of their intellect, athleticism, character and personality isn’t suited to the level they’re trying to work — and they don’t deal with it well. Sometimes that happens in Pop Warner, sometimes in Division II. Whatever the case, if you’re driven by the notion, “It can’t be me,” it tends to lead to behaviors mentioned above, alienating you from all your potential benefactors.
Becoming a better official and thereby improving assignments is a process which takes time to complete and can only be escalated so much. You may not have the tools to reach the level you desire, but you certainly have the ability to make it worse for yourself through poor motives, poor choices and poor actions.
Being hardworking and responsible as an official guarantees nothing, but placing yourself above it all guarantees everything.
Tim Sloan, Davenport, Iowa, is a high school football, basketball and volleyball official, and former college football and soccer official. ≤