It takes brains, wit and a cool head to handle difficult situations and navigate the various on- and off-court/field minefields officials have to deal with these days.
Among the challenges are social media attacks:
“I hope tO hell (he) falls off a roof and spends the rest of his life in a wheelchair.”
— One of the online comments made to veteran NCAA basketball official John Higgins, his family and his business as University of Kentucky fans expressed their displeasure this past spring following the Wildcats’ 75-73 NCAA regional final loss to North Carolina.
There are also media firestorms amid perceived errors in state
“It’s a difficult situation when they’re (officials) wrong, especially on the championship level, but we know it’s going to happen and it has happened. In all cases though we (the association) take the brunt of it. We try to get out front and we try to drive the story.”
— Retiring Arizona Interscholastic Association Commissioner of Officials Gary Whelchel.
In the end, what’s the ideal approach amid all the chaos?
“Common sense is a flower that doesn’t grow in everyone’s garden.”
— Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) Commissioner Julian Tackett.
Tackett says when it comes to solutions, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. When dealing with incorrect calls, officials getting threatened either physically or on social media, and those rare, sad moments when officials are physically hurt, common sense should rule above all.
“We have to compartmentalize these things,” he said. “Create flow charts (for the given situation). In the end, we have to be the adults in the room. … If we can, we will defend our officials, but we will be honest about it.”
Crisis management when you handle difficult situations no longer reserved for corporations or government
With that in mind, it’s become crystal clear that crisis management is simply no longer something reserved for governmental bodies and Fortune 500 companies.
It’s a fact of everyday life in sports and especially for officials. They’re under scrutiny more than ever thanks to a cell phone in everyone’s hands and replay technology that works many times faster than the best set of human eyes ever could.
Like Whelchel noted, officials need help in controversial situations, and states and associations on all levels need to have plans to handle a crisis.
In Higgins’ case, he had the powerful reach of the NCAA to back him up. Not only did the organization rally behind his performance in the UK-UNC game, but he also worked the Final Four a week later.
His was a classic case of partisan fan anger gone viral. Unfortunately, it left a few emotional scars as the Kentucky fan base trolled Higgins and his business mercilessly.
“You lose a little faith in people,” Higgins said in a quote to the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald.
The FBI also got involved, and UK was slammed in some media circles for its tepid response to the situation.
Higgins’ situation was still an issue this past summer.
So much so that when NASO decided to honor Higgins with its “Great Call” award in 2017 at the organization’s annual Summit, it was decided to have the ceremony elsewhere and at a different time because the Summit was in Louisville, Ky., and tensions were still running hot in the Bluegrass State.
It’s hard to plan a response for a situation like this, but according to some, Higgins followed a key sub-tenet of crisis management in his response.
“He poured no gasoline (on the issue),” said NASO founder and President Barry Mano to The Lexington (Ky.) Herald Leader. “He acted completely professionally.”
And in one more addendum to this case, Higgins is suing Kentucky Sports Radio for sharing his personal and business contact information online and over the radio, which he said directly led to the threats and the trolling.
His situation is a reflection of a larger, more troubling societal trend.
According to a National Alliance for Youth Sports report, 15 percent of youth games involve some sort of verbal or physical abuse aimed at officials from coaches and parents, and 21 states enacted statutes making it a crime to assault a sports official.
So, what are state and local associations supposed to do in the face of all this pressure?
How do they manage similar issues and how do they support their officials?
Tackett is big on officials and their associations taking the initiative when something goes wrong, getting out front on an issue, be it a missed call or social media unfairly running amuck on a beleaguered official.
“Nope, you can’t hunker down,” he said, “because if you don’t stop it up front, you will get run over (in the media and the courts). We all know that we’re in an era of accountability. We have to strike a delicate balance here. We want to protect, but if you’re not being direct, you’re being dishonest.”
There is a distinct process, he added.
“The first thing we try to do is determine if there is a missed call or not,” Tackett said. “We can’t go assuming that what is being said is automatically correct. We have a video replay system here (at KHSAA). If we get a request from a school, we can determine if the call is missed or not.
“But we can’t handle a situation if we’re not informed properly.”
Tackett said KHSAA, like other states, is more likely to take a serious look at misapplication of the rules as opposed to judgment calls.
Officials know that too, and know many of the in-game management techniques by heart. They were enumerated by longtime law enforcement and sports official Pete Jaskulski in his management approach “Verbal Defense and Influence/Conflict Management for Athletic Officials.”
They include listening to people with all of your senses; asking, not telling people what to do; explaining why certain calls were made; offering options, not threats; always giving a second chance; and of course, treating people with dignity and respect.
But sometimes, in the broader context of things, these well-thought-out tenets are not enough to protect officials, and others with a higher pay grade need to step in and help them out in difficult situations.
Tackett said Kentucky was one of the first states to put in place statutes making assault of officials a crime. It’s about protecting officials on all levels, he added.
“We can’t file the charges, but we do encourage them to avail themselves of state resources,” he said.
It’s all about showing some respect for an increasingly difficult profession done by fewer and fewer people.
Earning that respect and dignity was a daunting task for Higgins and the NCAA in the wake of the Kentucky situation. It’s even more so for local, state and regional officials and their associations as they have to deal with fan bases that are closer to the action and who think they know better because they have sophisticated technology at their fingertips.
Earning respect and dignity is a daunting task
These local organizations, without the wealth and power of the NCAA, are sometimes caught off guard by the reaction to certain calls, especially if they occur in a championship or rivalry game situation.
Because of their lack of resources and need to stay on the good side of people, common strategies for these groups include Tackett’s much-discouraged “hunkering down” and “riding the storm out.”
That theory just doesn’t work much anymore in these social media-savvy times, and officials are frequently left catching an inordinate amount of flack that they are often unprepared for.
Whelchel admits Arizona is unique because it is the only state that has a centralized assigning process for all its prep officials on all levels. In Arizona, officials know there is someone guarding their backs.
“I have a saying I use consistently,” he said. “‘There is no perfect official, because there are no perfect games.’ You decipher things on a case-by-case basis, because as we’ve discovered, 95 percent of the time the call was right. It was just in the eye of the beholder.
“In that situation, it’s our job to get them (the officials) out of the spotlight … because you can’t just let them hang out to dry. You’ll lose them that way. I work with the media (personally) in those situations.”
But how do other states without centralized assigning processes and backing agencies provide guidance to their officials?
In recent years, soccer officials from Michigan and Utah died after they were hit by angry players. Perpetrators in these situations are currently serving time. And in one high school football game in Texas, players deliberately blindsided an official.
Most of the time, the situations are not that dramatic, but when both safety and professional pride are involved, scars can run deep.
A much-publicized case came in 2016 where a misinterpretation of a rule in an Illinois high school state semifinal football game led to the wrong team winning and heading to the state finals.
The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) did find out about the mistake the night of the game and put out a statement acknowledging it, but the story went on for days, as the press looked at it from a number of different angles trying to understand what happened.
Then the courts got involved.
IHSA, like other states, has a bylaw that officials’ decisions cannot be overturned postgame, and that dictum was eventually upheld in the courts. Still, the officials had a hard time of it in the press and, as in the Higgins’ case, there were emotional issues to deal with as the lead arbiters of the game enumerated on-stage at the NASO Summit last summer.
“Yeah, I’m really impressed with (game referee Hollice Clark),” said his officiating partner Tom Longtin. “He took it I think harder than any of us. And then the local news media fried him in the newspaper and he got burned on that. And he really got slapped around because he was the hat (referee).”
As IHSA Executive Director and NASO board member Craig Anderson stated, “there were no winners here.”
IHSA took a supportive though largely neutral point of view on the officials at the time, but then was encouraged that both Clark and Longtin were able “to ride the storm out” and get back into action the following season with no real loss of status.
In that situation, the IHSA obeyed a number of the crisis management rules. It acted in a transparent and speedy manner and it stayed on the story, knowing that it wouldn’t occupy just one news cycle.
It did the best it could, but as explained by Jeff Hunt of Spinsucks, a public relations and marketing consulting company, Anderson’s statement of “no winners” put truth to the idea that “(organizations) need to understand you can win the legal battle only to lose the reputational battle.”
Like Tackett said, common sense and honesty are the currency of the realm, and should be the first things thought of by all involved in a crisis situation.
“We will tell them if they blew it,” Tackett said. “We will tell them, ‘This is what we found.’”
The KHSAA had to apply sanctions against a football crew in 2014 when it misapplied the sideline rule and changed the outcome of a state playoff game. It forced the KHSAA and the Central Kentucky Officials Association (CKFOA) to issue a lengthy statement explaining and then apologizing for the unfortunate chain of events.
In that situation, Tackett said he was pleased to see the local association get out front on the issue.
A misapplication of not the rules, but civil law, in a 2013 case from New Orleans was another situation where associations got out front and earned well-deserved justice for their officials.
In that case, area high school football referees found themselves jailed for trying to get local police officers to help them control the sideline when they felt fans were encroaching upon the field. An argument ensued between the officials and a police officer, and soon the officials found themselves having to post bail on charges of public intimidation.
In that situation, both the Louisiana High School Officials Association and the Greater New Orleans Football Officials Association vigorously defended the game officials for acting within their rights. The New Orleans group also issued a statement saying it would no longer work games where police from that particular department were in charge of security.
After an investigation, one of the officers involved in the arrests was sanctioned including a loss of rank and a suspension. The charges against the game officials were dropped and an apology issued.
But as time passed, outreach on both sides allowed for reconciliation.
“We’ve gone back to Covington,” said Eddie Allemore, past president of the New Orleans group, of the school where the incident took place. “We’re working games there again. It’s not like it was. There’s respect for us now (the officials) and respect for them (the police).”
Furthermore, a major lesson was learned.
“It taught us that we have to be mindful of game management heading into any event,” Allemore said. “Know who the game manager is, be it the principal or the athletic director. If you run into a situation, don’t get involved, get the game manager.”
In other situations, matters are not so clear-cut and a deep breath of honesty is needed.
Moments of self-reflection in the quiet of the evening when you’re digesting that call on that bang-bang play at the plate which had the home team fans howling in outrage.
That’s where even the most experienced of officials need to trust their hierarchy, the mentors they grew up with, their trusted peers in the association that they have worked with for years.
People whose eyes have seen the same things you have over and over again and who, after surveying some video and speaking with people, will have the courage to tell you something truthful you may not like.
Something that may help you when that next thorny issue comes about, like it always will.
Because, as noted, honesty is the currency of the realm and its value in the eyes of the coaches, players and fans is only as high as the reputation and actions of the officials working any particular game.
Because actions, not words, will define whether you or your brethren will be known as clear-eyed arbiters of crisis management or not.
In short, it is like Tackett said, officials and their associations want to protect officials, but they have to be honest and they have to obey those bedrock principles of crisis management that include being authentic and transparent.
Being certain of the facts and vigorous in your own defense is a prerequisite, Tackett added.
“Because the road is littered with many dead squirrels who couldn’t decide which way to go,” he said.
A little civility and understanding from the wider public would also help, added all involved.
Higgins remains cautiously optimistic in now his 29th season of wearing the striped shirt and blowing the whistle, though he knows what he and other officials, both local and national, are up against.
“It just seems that everybody wants what they want right now,” he said, “and some people never take responsibility for their actions. They feel they can just hide on the Internet (and troll people).”
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