The president of the local basketball officials association got a call on a Wednesday morning in late January. It was the principal of one the schools his group serviced. “So, have you heard what happened at my gym last night? One of your guys got into a shouting match with a visiting fan and ended up going up into the stands to eject him. That led to a shoving match and has turned into a real problem for me. Crowd control is my job and he never once came to me or the game administrator to let us resolve the issue. Now we’ve got reporters and lawyers calling. I never want see him back here and would like to know what you’re going to do to make sure he doesn’t screw up some other unsuspecting principal’s week!”

Nobody wants to think about disciplining a fellow official, but putting on a striped or blue shirt doesn’t make us less subject to human frailties than anybody else (even the coaches we regularly butt heads with). So, planning for what to do when an imperfection grows into a major problem is a necessary evil. In other words, it’s no fun to think about dealing with wayward members, but a responsible association must have a policy and procedure for discipline. That policy needs to be in writing in the bylaws, so that everyone understands the rules and no one can complain that you’re just making it up as you go along in order to throw him or her under the bus. 

One size does not always fit all when it comes to establishing a disciplinary program. The size of the group, the nature of the membership and even the sport may all play a role in defining the exact rules that should be adopted. 

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For example, an NCAA D-I football officials’ group may want to have a different approach to discipline than a local group of recreation and junior high soccer officials. Nevertheless, there are some general principles that always apply. 

The discipline process really involves two steps. The first is to determine the actual facts. Just because an allegation is made does not mean it’s true. The second is to determine what corrective action is appropriate in light of the facts. In many instances, that is a much more difficult task, since it is so subjective. 

The fact-finding process should first allow for a neutral fact finder. It might be a member of the association who was previously identified and elected or appointed for a term. It might be a committee or an individual who is appointed to look into the specific allegation. The second thing the fact-finding process must provide is an opportunity for the official to be informed of the allegations against him or her and to tell his or her side of the story. Of course, the official is entitled to know not just the alleged facts, but the standard of conduct or performance he or she has violated. For that reason, it’s important that associations clearly state their standards of conduct in their bylaws.  

As long as the investigation process includes a neutral fact finder and an opportunity to respond, everything else can be adjusted, based on the severity of the case. In the example, it may be that the fact finder wants to talk to the other guys on the crew and the principal. Or perhaps the official wants to offer a statement from the cop who responded. 

The rule of reason applies and it’s important to have a fact finder who can make sure everyone gets heard but not let the process run amok and turn a simple dispute into a federal case.

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Most of the time, the facts can be established with some degree of certainty. If the case turns into a he said-she said and the fact finder really can’t figure out what happened, the benefit of the doubt generally goes to the official. But remember, it is not a criminal case and we’re not talking about beyond a reasonable doubt. If the allegation is more likely true than not true, it should be considered established for the purposes of discipline. Only in a 50-50 just-can’t-tell case does the “tie” go to the official.

Once the facts are established, if they show a violation of the standards of conduct, the association must determine the appropriate corrective action. That might be done by or upon a recommendation from the fact finder. Typically, the board of directors will vote on any corrective measures. Obviously, any member of the board who might have a personal interest in the case should not take any part. 

The official should be offered an opportunity to be heard on the question of punishment also, although in most cases, he will have addressed that topic at the same time he made his case about the violation. The types of corrective actions available to the board might include reprimands, fines, suspensions, additional training, and dismissal. However, it’s very important that when and how they may be imposed is set out in the bylaws.

The primary factors that should control any association’s approach to discipline are to have a process that (1) provides fair notice to the accused official, (2) gives him or her a reasonable opportunity to respond, (3) has an impartial fact finder and decision maker, and (4) is set out in the bylaws. 

Dealing with allegations that an official did something seriously wrong is probably the most unpleasant part of association leadership. If you have a proper discipline plan in place, you won’t have to ask, “What do we do now?” You can say, “Well, Mr. Principal, I’m really sorry to hear that, but can honestly tell you we have a system in place that will allow us to quickly and fairly gather the facts and take any appropriate corrective action.”

This article is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice.


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