Late week musings from the sports desk
Officiating: policing the games we love
By BRANDON HURLEY
I used to be THAT guy.
I despised officials. I thought they made erroneous calls,That it was fun to berate them, mock them, and heckle them.
I was the wacky, loony student in the front row, causing a ruckus and losing his voice.
But in my latter years, as I matured and became more of a well-rounded sports fan (yes, I disgust myself for saying that), I began to sympathize with everyone involved, even the officials.
Officiating is a thankless job, one in which that receives constant criticism, but it’s vital to the overall product.
Each sport presents its own unique set of challenges.
In basketball, an official is most prone to hecklers and mistakes are magnified. Make a questionable foul call and the fans, coaches and players are all over you for weeks.
In the higher ranks, basketball is where you often see the bigger egos among officials. Just watch any big-time college game, those officials get really into the charge calls, throwing all their momentum into the signal. Sometimes, it truly does feel like they want to be the center of attention.
It’s different in the high school ranks. I have much more respect for the men and women that patrol the sidelines of the schools in Iowa. As fans, coaches and players, we need officials.
Without quality refs, imagine the state basketball would be in from night-to-night – pure chaos. Either fouls would be called left and right or things would get out of hand with no regulation whatsoever. Imagine an official that doesn’t know the correct rules for a travel or a blocking foul. Can you visualize the mayhem that would ensue?
As a matter of fact, the game wouldn’t take place.
Just ask Iowa High School Athletic Association director of officials Lewie Curtis what would happen if the refs one day decided not to show up.
“You can’t have a game without them. It’s imperative,” Curtis said. “For our high school sports, we’ve had that question asked, ‘what if they don’t show up?’ You can’t play, we’d have to cancel the game.”
The decline, which is bordering an epidemic, needs to be corrected quickly.
Curtis, who has more than 15 years of officiating experience in baseball, football and wrestling, offers up a few reasons as to why there is an official shortage.
Though basketball and football – the state’s primary sports – aren’t suffering as drastically, they are still in a decline, with baseball, wrestling and swimming receiving the brunt of it.
“I wish I knew the answer,” Curtis said, who spent 29 years as a teacher and athletic director at Underwood High School. “You could ask the same question as to why there’s a decline in attendance at state basketball and football. I think there’s a lot of stuff to do, a lot to choose from. If you are a young, newly married with a small family, are you going to take on a part-time job or hobby that’s going to take you away 5-10 pm three times a week? That’s not as appealing to some.”
Just because nearly half the officials in the state of Iowa are over the age of 50, that’s not to say it’s a bad thing. Personally, I’d feel a little more comfortable with a guy who looks like he’s seen his fair share of games officiating the championship over a newbie who’s fresh out of high school. I’d feel as if the younger guy would get rattled a little easier.
“I’m 52, I’m not going to say that’s old,” Curtis said. “You have some experiences, longevity and have seen a lot of games. It builds trust, it absolutely does, knowing that they are older and have seen a lot more.”
Older officials are more frequent across the state partially because their kids are grown up, don’t have as many responsibilities at home or they are retired, which allows them more flexibility to work nights.
Being an official at the high school level is not a full-time job, almost everyone has to hold down another source. You also have to provide your own transportation to and from games, which may lead you down some strange back roads and into small Iowa towns. The challenges are there, yes, but it all comes down to a personal decision.
“The reality of it is, on top of it, if you chose to go pursue that profession, you are under heavy criticism a lot of the time,” Curtis said. “It might be something that people say it isn’t for them.”
So what can be done to drive up participation? How do we revitalize a profession that continues to get beat with a stick, on TV, social media and in the crowd? The only way to get experience is to start somehwere.
Education is at the forefront of it. A local college has stepped up to offer a solution. Growing the profession at the lowest level is a good start, Curtis feels.
“DMACC is going to start an official’s course. They are going to work with us, and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union,” Curtis said. “So kids can get some training, and some college credit. And hopefully we can spread that and get more schools involved.”
The Des Moines Public Schools, at the high school level, have also developed a physical education program that is centered on refs – an officiating and leadership class. The course will examine the rule books, allow students to study the ins and outs of the different sports and even give them a chance to officiate some intramural games. It’s all in an effort to create excitement in Iowa’s youth for a profession that’s slowly dying.
“I’ve seen their curriculum, and it looks great,” Curtis said. “Hopefully we can spread it to the other high schools and get them started in the right way, so they have some skills and knowledge of the profession.”
Just like any career path, if you perfect your skill and put in the work, you’ll get noticed by the right people.
Curtis, 42-year veteran official Pete Peterson and their colleagues are constantly scouring the state for new talent. Hoping to replenish the pool.
“Today, more than ever, there are camps. I help a lot over the summer. Kids are playing organized ball more in the summer,” Peterson said. “We bring in officials so we can observe them. We have 10 observers across the state watching. If you are any good, you are going to be seen by somebody.”
Peterson has led the charge recruiting new blood. It’s just a matter of getting more people on board.
“Pete’s done a great job with young guys taking them under his wing, getting them out on the court,” Curtis said. “Officiating with them so he can give a hands-on critique. Hopefully we can get other officials to do that.”
Steps are being made, and this year, so far, there hasn’t been a decline, but an increase of 10-15 new officials in the state.
The time to get in is now. The process to big time officiating is accelerated more than ever, as the IHSAA strives to acclimate new refs quicker. It’s a joint effort to get the numbers back up to a comfortable spot. It may be tough at first to get used to the hecklers, especially in smaller gyms, but the support is there, at least within the profession. Growth can happen quickly if you put in your time.
“I bet you that we have 99 percent of those [officials over 50] that will help a 20-year old with anything they need,” Curtis said. “How to get equipment, how to study, how to deal with fans. Our officials want to help younger officials get started, there’s a safety net there.”
We all should pray and hope for a solution, high school sports can’t suffer anymore. The product has already dwindled over the years, so if we lose more officials, what’s to say will happen? I hope to see more well officiated games in my future, so let’s spread the word and get involved. And let’s not forget about the kids, they deserve to have quality officials as well.
Curtis can be reached at the Iowa High School Athletic Association by phone 515-432-2011 or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Official registration forms along with rule books, manuals, code of ethics, equipment order forms, manuals and much more can all be found on the IHSAA website (www.iahsaa.org/officials/).
“I think we are making strides to make officials more comfortable sooner. It will take time,” Curtis said. “If they want help, it’s literally a phone call away.”