Officials are the keepers of the game. That’s a very high stature. And with that stature comes lofty expectations of integrity.
Impartiality. Fairness. Morals. Those are just for starters. And as the games have gotten faster, officials are expected to be in shape and display amazing judgment.
But are officials really living up to those lofty standards?
As part of a previous Sports Officiating Summit, more than 3,000 officials at all levels took a 40-question survey about officiating ethics. And at the Summit the results were revealed and discussed. LEARN ABOUT THE SPORTS OFFICIATING SUMMIT
Have you ever intentionally ignored a playing rule?
The cornerstone of officiating is enforcement of the rules. Officials have little to no role in making the rules, but that doesn’t mitigate the responsibility to enforce them. There should be no excuse then to ignore the rules.
It’s not a simple question though, because there are obviously many levels of sports, from the youth level — where enjoyment and safety are the goals — to the professional level, where wins and losses mean everything.
“I would say that back when I was working Pop Warner games, if you (asked), ‘Did I ignore or did I overlook a violation of a kid lining up on the line of scrimmage exactly right and those kinds of things?’ certainly I did that,” said NFL referee Jeff Triplette. “But as you get much more senior in the level of officiating, I think ignoring a rule is just something that you can’t really tolerate.”
Nearly one in four officials (24 percent) who responded indicated they had intentionally ignored a rule.
Given the opportunity to explain their response, a number of officials cited similar thoughts to Triplette’s. However, there were comments that were baffling. Among them were: “It’s about advantage and disadvantage,” “Bending the book to make the game flow as it should,” “Officiate the game so that it flows,” “You don’t want to keep blowing your whistle,” and, “I called a girl out at third and actually she was safe.”
Former NCAA Division I men’s basketball official and current conference coordinator Curtis Shaw agreed with Triplette, but understood the thoughts and comments of the respondents.
“You’ve got to know what level you’re at and you’ve got to know the spirit and intent of the rule,” Shaw said. “Rules are black and white, but we have to officiate in a gray world at times.
“So are you intentionally setting aside a rule to the disadvantage of someone? No. But are you using a rule and the spirit and intent of that rule to do what you’re supposed to do, which is adjudicate the game fairly for both sides? I think that occurs.”
Triplette said there is a danger in doing that.
“When you start doing that, you have to remember that you have a team A and a team B,” he said. “Is that setting aside disadvantaging the other team? There are two teams. The balance is what we’re looking at.”
One thing that complicates the issue of advantage-disadvantage or setting aside the rules is the advent of video at every level.
According to Mark Uyl, assistant director for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, “We’re now getting film clips sent to us, and they’re saying, ‘Now wait a minute. The rulebook says X, but you can clearly see from the video,’” he said. “It’s not like in the old days when we could kind of just swipe the rule away and say, ‘It was game management, keeping the game rolling, let’s just ignore it and move on.’ The times that we live in certainly makes this more challenging with all the video that’s out there from the NFL, colleges, all the way down to the youth sports.”
Terry Gregson, NHL senior vice president and director of officiating, summed up the question. “It’s all about the integrity of the game and taking the position you can best defend, whether it’s using the spirit or the intent of the rule,” he said.
Have you ever yelled at or otherwise berated an official while attending a game as a fan?
Unfortunately, it’s become a part of the game. Officials will get yelled at. Fans are looking for any reason that their team is losing, and it’s usually not their team’s fault.
But an official shouldn’t have to hear it from one of his or her brothers or sisters in the avocation. You would think officials understand the immense pressure to get plays right every time, without the benefit of replay and sometimes without the best angle.
“We should be very supportive of our officials, especially if we’re not working,” said Alan Smith, president of the Georgia Athletic Officials Association. “We should find something that they’re doing right and make sure they know that. If you’re there to mentor, you’ve got to make sure that you’re honest with them and have the wherewithal to talk about what makes them better.”
That’s not happening nearly enough. In the survey, roughly 27 percent of officials said they had acted out as a fan. And the reasons were wide-ranging.
“One person said he did so prior to his officiating experience, which I can understand,” Gregson said. But others said they did it when they thought the officials were being lazy or that it was OK to be passionate at games. And at least one person said it was OK when the official had blown an obvious call.
Uyl said it disappoints him that it happens, especially at his level “This is one at the high school level we deal with every year,” he said. “Maybe half a dozen times it rises to the state office level. It’s just sad.
“Of course, when it’s involving your own child sometimes you can act a little goofy,” he continued. “But as officials, whether we’re in the uniform or out of the uniform, you have to know that perception is reality and it goes with us everywhere.”
Should there be a limit to the number of times you work for one team in a season?
While professional leagues have strict limits on how many times and how often an official can work the same team, that’s not always true at the amateur levels. Can you become so close to a team that you start to favor it? Or even if you remain neutral, can you maintain the perception of neutrality, especially when the fans call you by your first name as you walk in the door?
The survey offered multiple choices: once at home, no limit on the road; twice at home, no limit on the road; three times total; and no limit.
“There’s no set rule in the NCAA,” Shaw said, adding that his rule of thumb is, “You don’t see a team more than five times per year, whether that’s home, road, whatever.”
Forty-five percent of the respondents said there needed to be no limit, while 34 percent felt there should be a three-appearance limit.
“I know there are some basketball officials that would work a team nine, 10, 11 times a year, and I just don’t think that’s healthy for anyone,” Shaw said. “You end up in a bad situation with the fans, with the players and with the coaches.”
Gregson said the responsibility falls not only on the official, but on the assigners. “As an assigner, you also have to have that instinctive feeling,” he said. “You want to set your officials up for success, not for failure. I think you roll the dice every time you put somebody into a situation that they probably are pressing their luck with it.”
One thing that might have skewed the survey was that a majority of respondents were basketball officials. However, 40 percent of officials who took the survey also had more than 20 years of experience. And it’s that part that bothered Gregson.
Is it OK to work a game at your alma mater?
“I think the alma mater thing, especially at the amateur level, each year that goes by that becomes less and less of an issue,” Uyl said. “Once you get out five to seven years I think some of those things start to go by the wayside and you’re able to jump in.”
But how about working a game for a school where your child attends (but does not play in the sport)? Uyl said that poses a problem. “They may have that subconsciously in their mind and actually do everything they can to show everybody, ‘I’m not going to favor the school of the perceived conflict,’ and actually the community that you live in may end up getting the short end of the stick,” he said.
While Uyl’s positions make a solid argument, once again, the officials who responded to the survey thought differently.
Around 80 percent of the officials who responded said it was OK to work at your alma mater and where your child attends, although half thought they needed to put some length of time in place at their alma mater.
“One of the things I think is very important is we want to put an official in a position to succeed,” Shaw said. “We don’t want to set him up for a problem, so why am I going to assign an official to his alma mater when there are how many other games available? You’re just giving yourself an opportunity for that person to fail.”
Shaw sees less of a problem, especially at the college level. “I don’t have as big an issue with it if you have a child there, as long as they’re not involved in athletics,” he said.
Is it OK for an official to participate in coaching clinics?
Sports programs, especially at the high school level, rely on fundraising to be successful. And officials have shown an interest in those sports by working those games. Should an official do that?
“I have to take a look when someone calls me and asks to participate,” Gregson said. “I usually tell them, ‘I will get back to you,’ and then I try to go over in my head what would be the perception from an outsider as to my official being involved.”
The survey respondents thought participating in a coaching clinic (55 percent) was acceptable, but many fewer thought golf outings (26 percent) or other fundraisers (33 percent) were OK.
“We had a major problem this year with an official who lived in a certain town (and) got called by an assistant coach who said, ‘We’d like you to play in our golf outing as one of our celebrities,’” Shaw said. “The official … never saw the head coach during the whole outing, but it took about 24 hours before I had an opposing school call and say, “Why is he in their golf outing? I don’t want him in any game we play next year.’
“Something that you thought was totally harmless turned into a major to-do that we had to face, even though everything was for charity and you’re doing it for what you think are the right reasons.”
Gregson agreed. “You don’t have the opportunity to explain your rationale to everybody there, so then one person says something and it just spreads like wildfire,” he said. “Going back to the image of officiating, perception can become reality very quickly. We have a policy if anyone is asked to do any particular thing they must get ahold of me and we channel it. When it comes to charities and things like that, we quite often contribute, but it’s from the whole group and we don’t put individuals in difficult situations.”
Would you work as an extra official for no extra pay?
Junior varsity football is worked with three or four officials, instead of the five or six on Friday nights. Lower levels of basketball only get two officials, instead of three at the varsity level. The playoffs in other sports merit an extra official or umpire.
But how is an up-and-coming official supposed to learn how to work those systems if veterans won’t help out from time to time?
“It is a great opportunity to mentor your officials,” Smith said. He said local groups started using three officials for the pay of two to get experience in the three-official system.
“Over the years it became much clearer to the coaches that they were getting a better game with three-person officiating, and now we do all our games three-person,” Smith added. “It’s an opportunity to mentor; it’s an opportunity to work a system that you may have to work down the road. You’re getting experience, so I think it’s obviously important.”
Nearly half the officials surveyed said they wouldn’t work as an extra official for no pay.
Triplette recalled sacrifices that were made to benefit him when he was a beginning official.
“When I started out years ago in high school football, we gave up mileage to get the fifth guy, and colleges were just starting the sixth person,” he said. “If we aren’t willing to give up a little bit to help get more folks into our game and into our sport, we’ve got a problem in our leadership and our mentorship of our officiating. I think this is a huge issue as we look at bringing on young people into our game, into our profession and our avocation. We have to look at opportunities to expose them to the game.”
Should you be working “better” games?
One of the key elements in being a strong official is being a good self-evaluator. When officials were asked the series of questions about self-evaluation, it was sadly obvious that officials don’t do enough looking at themselves.
More than two-thirds of the officials (67 percent) consider themselves one of the best officials in their association.
While that sounds like an ego-driven number, Uyl understood where those thoughts might come from.
“Certainly we’re dealing with officials who wouldn’t be good if they didn’t have a certain level of self-confidence,” he said.
“So understand that you’re dealing with a group of people who, again, very self-confident, very driven, who think they may be a little bit beyond where they are, and especially as officials are starting to climb that ladder, and you’re having to make decisions about how quickly you should climb, you have to understand that’s kind of the mind-set of people that you’re dealing with.”
The second question dealt with the evaluation of a schedule. It would be disappointing if officials didn’t think they deserved the best game every time out. And while 80 percent of the officials said they thought their schedule was fair, more than half (53 percent) said they should be working better games.
Shaw talked about the progression that occurs in the NCAA tournament.
“I like to use the analogy in college basketball that we start the season with about 1,000 referees in men’s Division I, and everybody’s happy that that they’re on a roster,” he said. “All of a sudden it gets time for postseason and the majority of the referees are upset they didn’t get as many games as they wanted or they didn’t go to the NCAA tournament.
“Then all of a sudden you get to go to the NCAA tournament for the first time, and you’re excited as can be, and then you get a little pissed off because you only got one round. It goes all the way down until you finally make the Final Four, and you’re all excited to go to that first Final Four, and then you find out you’re only working the semifinal.
“Then you go another year and you go through all this same process, and I’ve now been refereeing 15 years and I finally go to the Final Four, I finally got the championship game, and I’m the U2, not the crew chief.
“So at the end of the year when you really get down to it, you’ve got one person happy out of the more than 1,000 that started the year.”
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