By now, the headlines have grown tiresome. High school football, once a Friday Night Lights tradition, can now be called Thursday Night Lights or even Saturday Afternoon Sunshine. Or worse yet, because of a lack of officials, games are canceled all together. It’s the same across all sports, across the entire country.

New official recruitment programs pop up with regularity. Many seem to fade away just as fast as they appear. Without question, they are created and implemented with the best intentions. However, asking (or begging) new officials to join the ranks when the biggest cause of the shortage remains seems to still be a significant roadblock. Years of pleading with coaches, players and fans to change their behavior isn’t working. And if it hasn’t by now, “Will it ever work?” is a completely legitimate question.

Enter ref-ology and Blast Equality Collab (BEQ), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, founded by longtime women’s basketball referee and former supervisor of WNBA officials Shelley Russi, who has designed a different way to refresh the pipeline of new basketball officials. Instead of relying on others — players, coaches, fans, etc. — to change how they perceive and treat officials, the program aims to help shift the way referees perceive their role and develop leadership skills to thrive in officiating’s challenging environment.

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Rules knowledge, game management and mechanics have long been the only developmental focuses for sports officials. In 2009, Russi started to change that, founding ref-ology to train referees in the San Francisco Bay area in the “whole person” concept. (BEQ came later, and Russi allows the organization to use the ref-ology term.)

Through this concept, she’s hoping to create a new standard for training youth referees that helps them find satisfaction in the level at which they are officiating, regardless if it’s a mid-week CYO assignment, the Final Four or any level in between.

Russi, who worked as an NCAA Division I official for 20 seasons, has since been joined in this official development venture by several industry leaders, including former NBA referee and former NBA officiating development executive Don Vaden. Together, Russi and Vaden have a consulting business, Third Side Coaching, which advises players and teams about performance, including providing insights into officiating.

In addition to Vaden, Russi partners with an advisory board to guide the program. The board’s makeup is not just former officials. To focus on developing officials off the court as well, Russi has drafted Tim White, a sports psychologist; Carl Reed, a senior associate athletic director at Sacramento State University; and Faatimah A, founder of the Women’s Premier Basketball Association (WPBA), to fill the board’s seats.

While developing an official’s oncourt skills is a focus of ref-ology and BEQ, the keystone of the mission is embracing the byproducts of being an official. Learning to think quickly on one’s feet, handling conflict and standing one’s ground when confronted with a disagreement are all qualities that help officials in their “day jobs.” The key is taking those skills, deepening competency with rules knowledge and situational-contextual awareness, professional mechanics and game management skills, to holistically develop the next generation of referees.

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“We emphasize the practice of refereeing in the present as a means for officials to self-develop,” Russi said. “The game is better because of it. Players feel the game was officiated fairly and everyone involved — officials, players and coaches — leave the game experience knowing what they need to work on.”

In the spring of 2022, White, who owns Tennessee-based White House Sports Psychology, heard about the work Russi and Vaden were doing and contacted them to learn more. “I basically cold-called them after I heard what they were doing, because it intrigued me,” White said. “There is most certainly a mental component of the game for officials. When they aren’t successful, there is a mental consequence. Then we talked about potential ways for me to be involved and contribute.

“Sports are competitive and are a good tool to teach different lessons in life,” he said. “The transferrable skills Shelley and Don are teaching are lifelong lessons.”

During the pandemic, many officials associations called on Russi and Vaden to speak — virtually — to groups of officials, offering advice and tips on cultivating mindfulness and inclusiveness, both on and off the court. Now that the program has taken root, Russi is a mainstay on the Bay Area officials association speaking circuit and is expanding her audience to other types of organizations.

Both Russi and Vaden have experiences, stories and credentials to carry the day at any developmental camp in the country, but the vibe when they speak to the officials in the program is quite different. Vaden puts it quite simply: “How many times have you been to a camp and the director stands up in front of everyone, rattles off a resume, tells stories about this game or that game? And since referees are trying to be hired, all the campers listen intently for any nuggets they may derive, then referee the camp hoping to be one of the very few people hired.

“We aren’t hiring any officials,” Vaden said. “We don’t have ‘comma-check’ games to assign. Our focus is ‘what we can do to help each referee simply develop.’ It’s an open dialogue that helps teach self-development and makes them better officials at the level each works now.”

Russi, Vaden and the BEQ team aim to create a community that marries leadership development with officiating development aimed at teaching critical life skills to budding officials. The training involves weekly video calls from May through August, and attendance at an annual leadership summit. The meetings feature discussions about leadership and character building, and film review of play calling. There are often guest speakers, including members of the BEQ advisory board.

The efforts make officials aware of the skills that have a common thread between everyday life and basketball. Harnessing these skills to, as Russi puts it, “remove the stigma of making mistakes,” are the building blocks on which they develop the fundamentals of self-reflection, self-observation and learning to self-correct.

Dominique Hunter was a four-year player at San Francisco State University. Opportunities to continue her playing career were limited, so she turned to coaching while pursuing a graduate degree in sports management. But after she started officiating, she found her niche.

“I started working with Shelley about 11 years ago,” Hunter said. “I did not have any expectations, except to be a sponge and learn as much as I can. When I started, I knew the expectations would be high. (Russi and Vaden) expect commitment, a willingness to learn and leadership. They empower us to be leaders on the court and within our officiating group.

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“You have to be all-in and willing to make mistakes to learn and grow,” Hunter continued. “We are able to do that with the expectation that we won’t make the same mistake twice and strive to be better than we were the day before.”

Hunter was one of the first officials to receive ref-ology’s Embodied Referee Designation. It’s a label ref-ology and BEQ want to grow into something that has widespread meaning within the officiating industry — that the officials who worked toward the designation have what it takes to lead both on the court and off.

“There will always be conflict when you are dealing with the emotions that go along with competitive drive,” Russi said. “If referees at the youth levels are exposed to a human development model as they learn the craft, we might have the opportunity to recruit more folks to join the movement. Officiating has a unique way of shaping how we transfer what’s learned on the court into our non-officiating work lives and in our relationships with others.”

Russi often references a series of ref-ology mindset tactics to help officials prepare themselves for assignments physically and mentally. The program uses these tenets as the foundation for staying in the present during a game: ref-Fit (being physically and mentally prepared), ref-Present (being mindful to develop habits for the moment), ref-Aware (having proper rules knowledge and self-awareness to learn from mistakes), ref-THISplay (every play deserves an official’s attention), and equality through officiating (officiating without bias or preconceptions).

The WPBA, an eight-team league based in the San Francisco Bay area, was one of the impetuses to formalize the Embodied Referee Program. The league was founded to provide a model for women looking to play in an elite-level environment while pursuing to play overseas or those looking to play even a few more years against top competition. Russi and Vaden work with the league to provide officials and use it as a training ground. The referees wear unique uniforms that reflect their involvement in ref-ology.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to design rules that ignite competition for the players, then use film to teach in unique and collaborative ways,” Vaden says. “Players and coaches in the WPBA are invited to join weekly training calls with our referees. We also invite members of our advisory board to join to offer third-party perspective.”

Russi and Vaden have created an integration of emotional, physical and mental skills to train the next generation of basketball officials with an awareness of being in service to the game for years to come.

It’s that service to the game that motivates them to give even more. Russi said: “Threading all these concepts, and more, in officiating allows the players to just play, the coaches to coach and the referees to just referee.”

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