Every season association officers get letters, letters and more letters that may lead you to defending your officials.

“How could we have 10 fouls and they have only two? That’s wrong.” “My kids can’t understand why they get held on every play and nothing happens, and we get a flag every time we get inside the 20.”

Right or wrong, your officials need to be defended, right? Right! So long as they haven’t violated bylaws or intentionally disregarded a mechanic, rule or regulation. Defending officials involves investigation, communication and at times, discipline. How do you preserve the integrity of the association when one of the flock is under fire? Here are six things you need to know:

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  1. Contractual relationships. Does your group contract with conferences, leagues or schools? Are the contracts oral or written? Are there restrictions as to dress, arrival time, incident reporting, payment, etc.? An association can’t defend its refs if it doesn’t know the terms under which they’re engaged – and the group’s role in assignments.
  2. Assignment criteria. If your group assigns, is there a rating system and what are the criteria? Or does your association simply train officials and help arrange assignments?
  3. Your association’s parent group and the sport’s governing body. Is your officials association a chapter of a parent association? How do the parent association’s rules, regulations and bylaws impact on complaints? What is your association’s relationship, if any, with the state association? Does any other group have input in regulating or sanctioning your officials?
  4. Your association’s governing documents. Your corporate charter may contain information about the rights and responsibilities of members. In many areas, a group’s bylaws or constitution will supply it. Whatever your written rules, they must be followed when dealing with complaints.
  5. Insurance coverage. Associations need to have documentation concerning insurance coverage should the association, or a member official or officer become involved in a complaint that turns into a legal proceeding.
  6. Local law. Some states specifically limit the circumstances under which a member can be expelled or deprived of membership rights. Local law should be consulted, preferably with the aid of your association’s counsel.

Once an association has its knowledge base at hand, steps need to be taken when a complaint is received.

Determine the nature of the complaint.

Does it relate to an issue your association is authorized to handle? If your group doesn’t assign games, it may not be able to sanction for judgment or rule application, unless a bylaw violation is involved. If your group assigns, it must weigh every complaint.

Refer to the right people.

If a complaint involves an official breaking a contract or a similar offense, there should be a provision covering hearings and sanctions. If the complaint is that a ref misinterpreted a rule, you may need to ask an interpreter to review it and then refer to the right committee.


The appropriate person or committee should be identified in your bylaws. Be sure to follow your bylaws to the letter in obtaining your member’s response to the charge. Those items are best accomplished with the help of your association’s attorney, who can guide you in a proper protocol for the current investigation and handling of future complaints.

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Take appropriate action.

In most cases, before a member is suspended or expelled, a notice of the charges and a chance to confront opposing witnesses is necessary. Sanctions are usually reserved for bylaw violations.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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