(Photo Credit: Ken Kassens)

Safe, fair and fun.

That phrase — that triangle, if you will — contains the ingredients to the best game you’ll ever have. And there is no reason why almost all your games cannot be like that. You have complete control over the first two items. Only you can allow an unsafe or biased game to be played. The third item is by no means a certainty, but is also well within your control. Unfortunately, there will be days when, despite your best efforts, joy will evaporate due to factors outside your control.


That is clearly the number-one priority for any game at any level, professional or amateur. The protection and welfare of players are paramount; there can be no compromise on that point. Never let an unsafe act take place.

What we can debate is what constitutes an unsafe act. A local official once caused a game to be cancelled because many of the players of the visiting team had wrestling pads on their knees. The oversized cushions were securely fastened, but partially exposed outside the pants. The rules require knee pads to be covered by the pants. In other situations, missing goalpost pads can be worked around; missing mouthpieces cannot.

“Err on the side of safety.” No one would dare attack that vaunted cliché. Well, I at least propose another viewpoint. While that certainly is sound advice, it sometimes becomes an excuse for justifying poor decision-making. Safety is embodied in many of the “when in doubt” principles. Those include: The contact is below the waist for blocking below the waist and blocks in the back; the contact is at the knees or below for chop blocks; and it is twisting, turning or pulling the facemask rather than merely a grasp.

For illustrative purposes, let’s focus on the last item. The defender starts an arm tackle; the runner spins and turns as he lowers his head, surprising his opponent. The defender suddenly finds his hand on the runner’s facemask and immediately recognizes he cannot tackle with that hand. He slides his hand to the runner’s arm and is able to complete the tackle. Out comes the flag. The explanation, “He may not have twisted the facemask, but I erred on the side of safety.”

Twisted? Get serious; he didn’t even grab the facemask; the hand and the facemask weren’t in contact long enough for a grab to occur, but the official who anticipated a foul had an impulsive reaction and went for his flag. He probably recognized his mistake before the flag hit the ground, but now he is going to defend his inexcusable mistake by presenting himself as an avid protector of players.


Officials are hired to assure equity in games. Arbiters disinterested in who wins and who loses are necessary to ensure the game is played fairly according to the rules and that neither team gains an unfair advantage.

The average high school game has about 11 accepted penalties. There will be games with triple that number of fouls. Either the players don’t want to follow the rules or their physical limitations prevent them from doing so. When that happens, all the officials can do is call what they see. When the fouls are excessively high, it won’t be a perfect game; it’s virtually impossible to catch everything when the transgressions are rampant. The accusation that the officials are one-sided is likely to follow. There might even be accusations of cheating.

One of the traps coaches try to draw officials into is an imbalanced foul count. “You’ve flagged us 10 times and them only once.” So what? More important is: Were the fouls legitimate? The losing team might foul more because it is outmanned, but perhaps the winning team is fouling more because it is playing aggressively and succeeding. Coaches often view the foul count in the latter case as an effort by the officials to keep the game competitive.


Working prep games is both a business endeavor and a social club. Those who do it only for “beer” money, or those who use game income as a second job to support their livelihood, are bound to cause problems because their goals as well as their needs will conflict with the core model of high school officiating. Officiating prep games is purposefully designed as an avocation.

Part of having fun is the knowledge the job is being done right and doing it right means being properly prepared; that requires an effort. The camaraderie needs to take place mostly after the game. Perhaps the true enjoyment of officiating is making a significant contribution to a large group. Simply being on the field should be an enjoyable experience, but there are many detractors such as lopsided scores, bickering players and whining coaches. Those must be managed; officials must be aware of brooding confrontations and act to deter them.

Many associations have officials with a misplaced sense of humor. Any acts or commentary that detract from officiating the game should not be tolerated. Here’s an example: A referee threw his flag and while he was announcing the penalty, the umpire picked up the flag and put it in his pocket. The referee held up the game while checking with both benches to see who had picked up his flag. It was not returned to him until after the game.

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