Bob Delaney, vice president of referee operations and director of officials for the NBA, sees something special in officials with military backgrounds.
Teamwork and trust are two qualities he believes stand out in veterans — and they are fundamental to success in sports officiating, Delaney said.
“There is no better group to mimic than the military,” said Delaney, who did not serve in the military, but worked in law enforcement before joining the NBA officiating staff.
“We can’t equate basketball to the battlefield, but we can learn from them in terms of how they operate,” Delaney said.
One of the biggest takeaways from the military experience is learning the “why” of a mission. The concept of knowing “why” something must be done helps officials with execution and understanding of what they do on the court, Delaney said.
“The concept of who will benefit by knowing replaces need to know,” Delaney said. “We learn from our experiences. The military learns from theirs, and grows as a result.”
He said veterans and referees share another quality: “They see things that are bigger than themselves. It’s service before self and that is implicit to effectively defending our freedoms and serving a high-quality-officiated game.”
The ranks of sports officials are peppered with many former members of the U.S. military. They officiate kids’ games, all the way up through the pros. Does military experience provide unique training and lessons that translate well to sports officiating? Are there things other officials can learn from their fellow officials with military backgrounds?
Referee magazine went looking for answers by interviewing a number of officials who made the transition, learned some things along the way and shared tips on why and how a military background gives sports officials a special edge.
Here are a few of the stories of sports officials who served their country:
“Without a doubt there are parallels between what it takes to be in the military and what it takes to become and work as an NBA referee,” said NBA referee Matt Boland. “There is no doubt in my mind that my time in the Army helped to shape me as a person and gave me the foresight and self belief to pursue such a lofty goal as refereeing in the NBA.”
Both the military and officiating are in Boland’s blood: His father Dave was a retired brigadier general and a longtime high school soccer and basketball official in Connecticut. His older brother, Tom, was a full colonel and helicopter pilot in the Connecticut Army National Guard.
After attending a small prep school in northeast Connecticut, Boland’s next stop was the University of Connecticut.
“Even though I came from a military family, I had no real plans at that time to join the service,” Boland said.
After a self-admittedly unfocused and overwhelming year and a half at UConn, Boland found himself at a crossroads.
“I was going nowhere fast and I knew something had to change,” Boland said. “In January 1987, with some family guidance, I decided to become the third member of the family to join the service.” Two months later, he was on his way to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
The 13 weeks in basic training challenged him physically and mentally.
“I found out I was capable of things I never could have imagined,” Boland said. “Basic training opened up my eyes to see that I could do anything I put my mind to and that I wasn’t going to be satisfied leading a mundane life.”
Upon his return to Connecticut after basic training, Boland entered his third year on local IAABO Board 8 with a new focus and big goals.
Officer candidate school (OCS) provided another unique set of challenges that further helped to shape his character and leadership skills. Boland recalled one particularly memorable day: “After about two weeks of training, we each were placed in various leadership roles. They had our entire group together in a large classroom (approximately 75 candidates in the class). We had become accustomed to expect the unexpected as we were constantly being pushed out of our comfort zones. We were told that one by one we each were to get up in front of the class and tell the group who we felt were the top three candidates in the class and who the bottom three were and why. Suffice to say that made for an interesting afternoon,” Boland said.
Based on how the exercise proceeded, he learned it was more important to be respected than liked. “That is a direct parallel to being an NBA referee,” he said. “If you are looking to be liked, you are in the wrong profession. You want to be respected.”
In the summer of 1989, Boland was commissioned as a second lieutenant, moving into serving as a platoon leader.
“Being 23 years old and standing in front of a platoon with some of the soldiers being twice my age was further evidence for me that I needed to earn their respect,” he said. “I would do that over time by showing competence, consistency and fairness. As referees, that is exactly the same goal. It takes time. You earn respect through consistent work in many highly emotional situations.
“In many cases, my soldiers had more expertise and experience in the areas that we were tasked to do, such as working with explosives. One of our refereeing mottos is to referee to our level of experience. I learned that concept early on as a platoon leader. If I tried to act like I knew it all and had all the answers, I would lose the respect of my soldiers. The same mindset applies to being an NBA referee. We work hard to have all the answers to all the challenges we are presented with every game, but we also have to be able to admit a mistake or acknowledge we need help from our partners,” Boland said.
When it comes to teamwork, Boland saw his platoon was only as strong as the weakest link.
“It was up to the platoon to train and bring every soldier up to speed,” he said. “Each one of us had to carry our weight. We had to count on each other to perform our assigned role consistently in high pressure situations. As NBA referees, we walk on the floor each night as a team. We may be a mix of levels of experience, but we fail and succeed together. We talk about putting our priorities in the order of game, crew, self. Any variation from that order and we will not be successful and we will not do justice to the game or our profession.
“The military provided me with the boost, direction and confidence to believe I could one day work in the NBA. The NBA is a lofty goal. It’s tough to get there. You must have a plan, and even then there are no guarantees. But with no plan, you have no shot. The military gave me the structure on how to do it,” Boland said.
Because there is criticism in both the military and officiating in the NBA, mental toughness is very important.
“In the NBA environment, you are hearing a lot of people disagreeing with your work, so you must have confidence and a belief in yourself,” Boland said.
Boland referenced an obstacle course during training that required tougher and tighter steps as the trainee neared the top, along with a leap at the last rung of a ladder. “Somehow you do it. You have to believe in yourself. You see yourself in a different light,” he observed.
The military trains, trains and trains some more. “Everything we did was to practice and prepare for the real thing. We would stress the importance of detailed work. Lack of focus on detail could cost lives one day. As referees, we spend tremendous amounts of time preparing to work at our best. We are constantly preparing and maintaining ourselves physically to be able to keep up with the greatest athletes in the world. We have to be in position on every play to get the calls right. We are preparing by studying our game tapes looking for things we do right for reinforcement and for things we need to do better,” Boland said.
The military has an after-action review (AAR), which is similar to a postgame report.
“Every time we completed a training exercise, we did an AAR,” Boland said. “We would take a comprehensive look at all the things we did well and all the things we need to focus more on. This was a critical part of the overall training process. We would be our own worst critic and we weren’t afraid to be open and honest with each other. This is exactly what NBA referees do after each game they work. We drill down deep and we do so with an open mind among the crew to improve.”
Bob McElwee loves football. He played through his years at the U.S. Naval Academy, and as he transitioned to flight school as the new Air Force Academy was being built outside Denver in 1955. He kept playing for three years after that. He hadn’t thought of officiating football up to that point. But once he hung up the spikes, he found there was a void on Saturday afternoons.
“I started off officiating midget kids, and loved the games. I was bored to tears on Saturdays,” he said. His love for football helped him start down the officiating path, but the NFL veteran’s (27 years) military background laid the foundation for success. There are certain skills that are paramount in officiating success, according to McElwee, including discipline, integrity and judgment under pressure.
“Some can be taught and some you just have,” he said. The military helps on the teaching side.
“Officials must be disciplined to prepare for games, similar to the military,” he said. The military also teaches leadership, which applies to officiating: “As the referee, you are in charge of all the guys on the field, and you have to make sure the game is officiated fairly and kept under control,” McElwee said.
He related a unique situation that brought all his military preparedness into play during a game in Washington, D.C., following the anthrax scares post-9/11.
“There had been the anthrax scares in D.C. Something was being sprayed on the sidelines. You train to handle these types of situations, both in the military and as an NFL official. First, I stopped the game. I asked for a chemical engineer to figure out what was burning the players’ eyes,” McElwee said. “We weren’t going to continue the game until I knew what the stuff was.”
Behind the team benches, there had been a fight in the stands. Security had used pepper spray to subdue the combatants, and the mist had blown onto the field by large field fans.
“That’s why the players couldn’t see,” McElwee said.
Once he got the information he needed, he proceeded with the game.
Later, McElwee got a call from a friend and colleague who was an admiral in the Navy. “He called me and said, ‘Bob, this is what we trained for. I’m proud of you,’” McElwee said.
Luis Martinez is a retired major from the U.S. Army, having served 23 years (14 as an officer and nine years enlisted). He’s officiated volleyball for 20 years, 10 at the collegiate level, and worked both the 2013 and 2014 Women’s Volleyball National Championships as a line judge. It was an incident while playing volleyball in the military that prompted Martinez to get into officiating. While stationed in Germany, he mouthed off to one of the officials and immediately received a red card, which cost his team a point. He thought to himself, “I can do this,” and started officiating military intramurals. When he returned to Oklahoma, he began officiating high school volleyball and basketball.
Martinez said he believes his military background helps in volleyball officiating, particularly at the higher levels, because it adds presence to his demeanor.
“If you look good and are fit, when you walk on the court, you exude confidence and the coach feels good about your presence,” he said. “You’ve won 60-70 percent of the fight right there. It’s about the appearance. You should look the part.
“At higher level games, you face situations where you must remain calm under intense pressure. You may think to yourself, ‘Why did I blow that call?’ So you have to take a deep breath and move on from there,” Martinez said. The military gives you the background to handle those situations more effectively.
Trust and teamwork are important in the military and officiating. “You must trust your partner. Each official has their area. Trust that he or she will make the right call,” Martinez said.
Martinez also spoke about the concept of situational awareness. In a basketball game, for example, a player may react after being slighted by an opponent and you must be aware of those nuances. If you didn’t get the first foul, there might be retaliation. This is similar to military incidents in the field.
“I pay attention to those little things,” Martinez said.
Character is another defining characteristic for both military and officiating endeavors, Martinez said. That includes showing empathy and discipline, and being approachable.
“On the stand, for example, sometimes you need to make eye contact with the coaches and communicate that way without the coach having to yell at you,” he said, noting those non-verbal cues.
Martinez sees the extra need for preparation in the military and officiating. In the military, routes are analyzed before expeditions. In officiating, to be successful, a strong knowledge of the rules is required.
Martinez said that both fields mandate that you “give 100 percent all the time at every level and continue to educate yourself on the latest techniques, rules and regulations.”
Leroy Richardson found himself walking through shopping malls with his wife after he exited the Navy, doing basketball traveling signals.
“Really? I mean, really, do you have to do traveling calls in the mall?” she would ask him. Of course he did. Previously, while in the Navy, it was practicing his salute. He had it down with his hand and cap just right, getting the signal perfect. From the Navy to the NBA, Leroy was just taking his professional mechanics to the next level.
Richardson served 12 years in the Navy, officiated D-I college basketball while on active duty, and was hired into the NBA a year after leaving the military, in 1995. He sees a lot of parallels between his military and officiating careers: concepts he outlines as 1A and 1B.
One-A, he terms the team concept. As a sailor out of Virginia Beach, Va., Richardson received accolades, something that wouldn’t have been possible without his team.
“You need to buy into the bigger team message, whether you are in the military or you are a referee. Even if you give maximum effort while thinking as an individual in a team environment, no accolades may come. You must put the team goals ahead of the individual. The mission is the biggest thing — focus on the organization/team concept, and then individual awards come,” he said.
One-B, is standard-setting. Richardson said that to a fault, the military sets tough standards.
“It’s almost unrelenting,” Richardson said. “It can spill over to your personal life because you can’t let things go and not everyone adheres to the same standards you do. You check, recheck, dot the i’s and cross the t’s. If you don’t, your mission can be compromised because lives are at stake. That never leaves you, whether it’s in your personal or refereeing life. Setting high standards is important to success in the military and officiating basketball.”
Ironically, Richardson said frustration can set in due to the high level of standards. With high expectations for your officiating partners and the fact that referees, like the military, come from different backgrounds and different parts of the country, it’s important to get crews on the same page.
“In the military, step A is followed by B, then C. With referees it could jump from A to C to E. To minimize that at our level, good leaders know how to give a clear vision and solid direction. When you trust leadership, you get buy-in,” he said.
Team-first and mission priority are critical to success in both fields, and you must “recognize the people who run through walls for you,” he said. The structure/discipline/standards necessary for success can lead to frustrations for people who haven’t mastered those qualities, particularly if accountability is lacking, according to Richardson.
Richardson said many of his best friends developed during his time in the military. “You can count on them,” he said. “It’s not just a job. It affects your life.” Similarly, you want to be a good partner on the court — trustworthy and accountable. “That translates from the military to the basketball floor, particularly when things get hot and heavy and during those cool-down moments after the game,” Richardson said.
Rodney Mott can relate to Richardson walking through the mall practicing mechanics. He’s been there, too. He found himself using mirrors, though.
“My friends would (say), ‘Dude, those are gang signs, we can’t be walking around with you,’” Mott said, laughing. The practice and repetition were ingrained from his military experience — three years active duty in the Navy and three years in the reserves.
He took that attention to detail learned in the Navy with him to officiating.
“I didn’t start officiating until after I left the Navy, and paid a lot of attention to detail,” Mott said. “I would watch others and pick up a lot of little things. The military teaches you that attention to detail. It helped me learn the profession of refereeing better.”
Mott played basketball while in the Navy, then went to San Diego State before moving to Los Angeles, where he saw Magic Johnson playing in a summer league.
Mott went on to approach Darell Garretson, Joe Crawford and Dick Bavetta about how to get into the business. One area of his military background that Mott said helps him today is understanding how to respectfully pose questions to an authority figure. Also, advancement is similar in the military and NBA officiating — it’s a slow process, and the best person isn’t always the one who gets the opportunity, he said.
“In both areas, it’s very competitive and moving up can depend a lot on what people are looking for,” Mott said. “You can’t just jump to a higher rank. You have to take the right steps.”
“Taking care of the troops” applies in the military and in officiating. David Coleman applied that principle during his 22 years of active duty in the U.S. Army, and in officiating management positions (five seasons at the NFL as director of officiating and one season as vice president of football officiating at the Pac-12 Conference).
His leadership training in the military, along with the experience he gained organizing teams, helped immensely as he has built crews. The military also helped Coleman establish standards of accountability, develop and implement programs to train, develop, evaluate and manage groups of officials. In Army jargon: “We’re taking care of the troops.”
“My military background provided me with opportunities to become comfortable with and proficient in all aspects of leadership and responsibility. The Army is unique in that it prepares young soldiers — officers and non-commissioned officers — to lead and be responsible for the lives of others,” Coleman explained.
Coleman had a successful onfield career officiating football in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the Mid-American Conference (MAC). He was a referee-in-training with the MEAC. While still on active duty at the time as the G1/Adjutant General of the 101st Airborne Division/Air Assault (top HR officer in the division), he received a call from the conference supervisor, Paul Glenn, on a Thursday. He asked Coleman if he had his white hat ready.
“Of course I did,” Coleman said. “He gave me the assignment to lead a split crew (MEAC/SWAC) at a Southern vs. Florida A&M game in Tallahassee, Fla., that Saturday night. It was my first game as a referee in a college game. My military experience gave me the mental edge to step up and successfully carry out the duties and responsibilities of leading a crew in a nationally televised game on ESPN. From that day forward, I was a referee in the MEAC.”
Coleman was first exposed to football officiating in the intramural program at West Point. After graduating, he continued to play sports in the Army (volleyball, baseball, softball, flag football) and did some coaching (basketball and flag football). After several years on active duty, he decided to again try officiating. He officiated softball and football, and became comfortable with the responsibility of officiating games.
After completing a staff assignment at West Point, Coleman was transferred to the 3rd Infantry Division in Germany. There he officiated softball, flag football and youth football for the Army’s recreation programs. He also officiated Department of Defense high school football (NCAA rules) and German-American football (NFL rules) throughout the country. German-American Football was a forerunner of NFL Europe.
“My leadership skill was tested when I was elected president of the area football officiating organization with responsibility for a staff of more than 50 officials,” he said.
While assigned to the Pentagon, Coleman met and became affiliated with distinguished officials in the Washington D.C. area (Tom Beard, Johnny Grier, Larry Upson, Larry Hill, Scott Green, Ben Montgomery, Jim Duke and R. Melvin Jackson of the Eastern Board of Officials in Washington, D.C.).
“In that capacity, I contributed to the development of up-and-coming officials, including future NFL officials Boris Cheek, Greg Steed and Scott Edwards,” he said.
Those connections, beginning with the military, helped Coleman’s career take off. After leaving the field due to health reasons, he was hired by the NFL as an instant replay assistant. That experience led to his opportunity to work for the NFL as director of officiating.
Coleman’s work with the NFL helped prepare him to lead the officiating program at the Pac-12 Conference. “Here, I am developing best-in-class officiating programs across football, basketball and our other sports,” he observed.
Coleman developed leadership and connections, got the right training that he could then share with others, and built management skills from serving in the military. Bit by bit, those skills served him well over his football officiating career, as it has many other sports officials who have served their country in the military.
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