By most accounts, the game went off without a hitch. Hazelwood Central defeated Ladue, 69-52, in a recent Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) basketball sectional tournament game.
But after the game, there were rumblings from the Ladue camp that one of the officials who worked the game had a conflict of interest because he had an ownership stake in a club program in which at least two Hazelwood Central players participated.
The 20-year official had a proven on-court track record at the high school and small-college levels. But did that club connection to players create a conflict of interest — and an obligation for that official to step aside? In some people’s minds, the answer was yes — and the noise in the wake of the game prompted the MSHSAA to investigate.
Accusations of a conflict of interest are hardly a new phenomenon in the officiating industry. But in an era when people are increasingly connected through the internet and social media, governing bodies, assigners and officials themselves have been forced to scrutinize the issue more carefully.
Kenny Seifert, who oversees the MSHSAA’s officials, was not employed by the MSHSAA during the time of the Hazelwood Central-Ladue sectional game. Seifert said the association didn’t find any conflict of interest concern with the official; the schools were fine with him. In fact, he had worked a regular-season game between the two schools without any issues being raised.
But the MSHSAA now has a conflict-of-interest protocol for its officials.
“When they register for the postseason in each sport, we inform them that if there is any conflict of interest with any game assignment they receive throughout the process, they are to contact our office immediately and let us be aware of it so that we can determine if the conflict is significant enough that we want to make a change or not,” he said.
Even where an official can still be fair and impartial, the mere perception of a conflict can cause problems. But in a world where connections abound — the proverbial six degrees of separation — the potential for conflicts of interest, real or perceived, is high.
Perceived conflict of interest is basically unavoidable
“The occurrence of conflict of interest or the perceived conflict of interest in sports organizations is basically unavoidable,” said David Dodge, who worked NCAA Division I men’s basketball for more than three decades, primarily in the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences. Today, Dodge is a member of the NASO Board of Directors and chair of NASO’s Integrity Committee. “To me, what matters most is that we recognize this and then disclose this.”
Then, steps can be taken to address the issue, which can include taking an official off the assignment because of real or perceived conflicts of interest.
“Conflicts of interest abound in sports organizations,” Dodge said. “So, what matters most is recognizing and disclosing them and then managing the decision that needs to be made.”
So what constitutes a conflict of interest?
If there’s any former or current tie that would create doubt in others that you won’t officiate fairly or have a personal bias, there’s a potential for a conflict of interest.
The NASO code of conduct states in part:
“Officials shall be free of obligation to any interest other than the impartial and fair judging of sports competitions. … Officials shall recognize that anything which may lead to a conflict of interest, either real or apparent, must be avoided. Gifts, favors, special treatment, privileges, employment or a personal relationship with a school or team which can compromise the perceived impartiality of officiating must be avoided.”
A key factor here is that officials could still be capable of being fair and impartial, but still find themselves in a conflict-of-interest situation. It’s the perception of a potential bias — that the person’s interests are inconsistent with the best interests of the game — that causes problems.
Ultimately, the perception of a conflict of interest can damage an official’s credibility.
Some classic examples of situations to avoid:
- Your alma mater. The optics won’t be good when coach Smith comes up and gives you a hug before the game. Some years should pass before working games at a high school or college where you graduated; in some cases — particularly for high-profile athletes — it may never be appropriate to return, except to watch from the stands.
- Family connections. Does a spouse work in that school district? Do you have a child that attends school there? Those situations would cause people to question your impartiality.
- Business ties. If you’re employed by a school, don’t officiate games there. And if your boss’s kid attends and plays on the team, best to step aside for any perception of bias that might create — or any damage to your career if your boss isn’t happy with your officiating.
- Previous blow-ups at the school. Past run-ins can create a perception you can’t impartially officiate the team. Best to disclose the issues so your assigner can evaluate whether you should remain on the game.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) defines a conflict of interest as “any situation which would cause a reasonable person to question the integrity or fairness of an official. Examples include, but are not limited to, officiating a game where a family member participates or officiating a game when the official works for one of the competing schools.”
“Obviously, if your kids attend the school or family members work at the school, those types of things, we don’t want you working those games,” said Beau Rugg, the OHSAA’s director of officiating and sport management who assigns state tournament games. He said potential conflicts of interest are handled on a case-by-case basis. “You can be residing in the school district or residing in the town. That’s more of a case-by-case basis if you’re not connected with the school in any way. Where you live isn’t the biggest deal. If you live in Celina, it doesn’t mean you can’t work Celina High School; you probably won’t very much, but if you’re not connected with the school, that’s not necessarily a conflict of interest.”
There’s an expectation that officials for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association will notify the state office if there are schools where officials shouldn’t work because of a conflict of interest. In fact, officials in North Carolina are required to do so as a condition of the registration process each year.
“The balancing act is, everybody can’t have so many conflicts that we have no officials that can work the games,” said Kip Johnson, a regional supervisor in North Carolina who does the assigning for the Triad Basketball Officials Association (TBOA) and its 300 members.
Johnson, with the assistance of the TBOA’s board of directors, developed a detailed conflict-of-interest policy which was adopted in 2015 and addresses such issues as officials who are school employees, are high school or AAU coaches, those who played a varsity sport (not necessarily basketball) at a school or with a coach, or have family members who do or did. The policy also covers officials who are members of a school’s booster club or who hold elected office in a community.
Johnson notes there was no one incident that prompted the development of the code of conduct, but said it was apparent one was needed.
“I think there has always been an unwritten rule that if you had a child attend a school then you shouldn’t referee there,” Johnson said, “but the problem for me was I began to get phone calls from ADs saying, ‘Why would you send this official to a school that his kid goes to, or his kid graduated from, or his kid played basketball for?’ And I didn’t know.”
A conflict of interest will NOT be held against an official
Rugg said it’s important for the 14,000-plus registered officials in Ohio to understand that reporting a potential conflict of interest will not be held against them.
“What we have to do in many respects is let the officials know that if they come to us with a conflict of interest, especially in the case of a tournament game, that it’s OK,” he said. “We want them to tell us. It’s not going to hurt them in terms of getting another assignment.
“You have to really make sure you build a culture where people are going to let you know and know you appreciate the fact that people want to avoid the situation, and again, for the most part, I think officials do that very, very well.”
Johnson said he now averages perhaps one phone call every other season from an athletic director wondering why a certain official was assigned.
But both he and Rugg have encountered situations where officials worked games they likely should have turned back.
“Last year I got a call from an athletic director saying we had an official who was an administrator at a school and that official worked her school’s game,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t turned in as a conflict, I didn’t know … so that assignment was made and no one brought it to my attention that there that was a conflict even after the official received that assignment.”
The online assigning software indicated the teams, so the official in question should have seen the conflict.
“The official herself didn’t let me know,” he said, “so that was an embarrassment for that to happen.”
Rugg recalled a situation in which an official worked a sub-varsity football game his grandson was playing in. He contacted the school to note the conflict of interest and they responded with, “We’ve never had a problem before.” But Rugg told them “… somebody’s going to see this as a bad thing.”
The school in question was in a rural part of the state where there were not as many officials. A lack of qualified officials can put athletic directors in a bind. But that doesn’t mean conflicts of interest should be ignored.
In those situations, he advises the official to ask the host school to contact its opponent. Those schools should have a conversation. “(Have the host school) tell them, ‘This is the deal. These are the people I can get, they’re really good. They’re qualified but they’ve got (a conflict).’ Let them make the call. Because if it’s a good person and it’s a tough area to get people, they’re going to say it’s OK.
“It doesn’t mean someone won’t complain later. It’s the way it is. But people (should be) informed about what’s happening and what reason. A conflict of interest is something you want out there publicly.”
Sometimes it’s best for officials to steer clear of coaches with whom they’ve had a recent problem. A “cooling-off” period sometimes is best to avoid not only a repeat run-in, but any perceptions that the official “has it out” for the school.
Bernadette Murphy, a softball umpire from Secane, Pa., stepped away from a game where she had ejected the host coach the season before. The Pennsylvania ASA Hall of Fame member has worked various levels of softball for more than four decades, including the high school, college and international levels.
“I had to call up and turn the game back,” she said. “I wound up removing the coach from a game (the first of a doubleheader) and even the second game when he came back in wasn’t a good situation. So, I felt that it was best not to put his team, him or me in that situation. So, I removed myself from the game. I feel it would have been a conflict of both of our interests and I’d rather not put people in that position.”
Colleges often address conflicts of interest by contract
At the college level, conflict-of-interest policies are often addressed by contract. John Cahill, supervisor of men’s basketball officials for the Big East, said there is language in his officials’ contracts that covers potential conflicts.
“As part of that contract, there is a prohibition against an official working at an institution from which he graduated, from which a family member may be employed,” he said, “and a number of other factors that would eliminate, to the best of our ability, a potential conflict of interest.”
Other scenarios that might preclude an official working at a school include where the official and a conference coach went to school together or played together, or if the official has a child playing high school basketball who is being recruited by a conference school or schools.
Thanks to social media and our instant access to information, there’s a greater potential for conflict-of-interest concerns being raised by disgruntled parties.
Cahill said officials in today’s world must be more careful than ever about avoiding potential conflicts of interest and the appearance of potential conflicts.
“Social media has a great bearing on officiating,” he said. “There is a higher need and a greater need now to conduct yourself with great propriety off the floor and offseason.”
Johnson shared a similar perspective: “Because the flow of information is so immediate and you can record everything that happens with your iPhone and send that recording or movie or text it to somebody — yes, everything is more sensitive now than it was 15 years ago.
“What has changed is the connectivity of everybody. Everybody knows everybody through social media, they follow somebody on Facebook, and that person has a friend who is an official. Everybody’s life is public now.”
The MSHSAA situation involving the Hazelwood Central-Ladue game shows just how those situations can flare up — with the official dragged through the media — even where the potential connections to participants can be minor.
Ultimately, if there is any doubt there’s a potential conflict of interest, it’s best to avoid the game. Don’t put yourself in a position of jeopardizing what has taken years to develop — your reputation and sense of character.
There’s usually plenty of time in advance to recognize a conflict. But what do you do if it comes as a surprise? For example, you arrive at the game site and discover an assistant coach is an old college roommate or the team captain is your son’s girlfriend? In those cases, let your partners know immediately. Then, tell the coaches and overseeing administrators that an unanticipated conflict has occurred.
If it’s significant enough, perhaps there’s someone from the JV crew that can work the game in your place. But in a last-minute situation, you may still need to work the game. Being upfront about the conflict rather than sweeping it under the rug will help preserve your reputation.
Work the game professionally — just make sure to avoid the conflict in the future.
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