We usually think of a high school sporting event consisting of two teams, each competing to the peak of their abilities for a chance to win. But, there is in fact a third team on the field. The third team is older than the other two teams, and there are fewer players on the third team. However, any physical disadvantage in the third team is offset by their supreme knowledge and devotion to the game. The third team draws no fans and demands no attention, yet they steadfastly show up at every game. The third team is there to balance the contest between the two teams and you couldn’t play high school sports without this vital third force.
The third team is the officials.
Anyone who has played high school athletics knows the seemingly mysterious nature of the officials at game time. They will magically appear as if out of thin air, subtly emerging from a door or behind some bleachers or a fence to work the game. Then, the second the game concludes, the referees deftly exit, leaving no trace. Rarely are officials noticed during a contest either, or if they are noticed, it is only for a questionable call that they make. They seem in constant concentration, their expressions stoic even in the most heated moments of the game. In actuality, the women and men who don the shirts in navy blue (baseball and softball), black and white stripes (basketball), white (volleyball) or bright yellow (soccer), are––gasp!––real people, with real stories. This reporter interviewed several high school officials to understand their backgrounds and their extensive training.
A Life Off the Court or Field
To most current high-schoolers, officials exist solely to ref your game. But have you stopped to think where referees might be headed after the game is over? They are most likely returning to their families at home, or to their other career. And, many officiators grew up playing the sport they now oversee when they were in high school.
Jason Gant, an official from the Northern California Basketball Officials Association (NCBOA), takes part in many activities outside of his reffing role on the court. “When I am not officiating, I am coaching, as well as working in the public health and fashion industries,” said Gant. “I have co-founded a lifestyle brand called BoomTho!, offering t-shirts, tanks, hats, and beanies.” Quite the resume for someone who is usually seen blowing a whistle. “I started officiating to gain a different perspective on…basketball and volleyball. I had always played both sports growing up and wanted to continue to participate into adult age. Officiating allowed me to see the sports through a different lens, other than as a player…it brought me even closer to the sport.”
Another ref, who wished to remain anonymous, is a nine-year veteran volleyball referee for the Northern California Volleyball Association (NCVA) and enjoys officiating because it brings her closer to the student players. “What keeps me involved, first, is the love of this sport. There’s always something to learn … no matter how many years you have been reffing. Watching the kids excel in [volleyball] every season puts a smile in my face.” And much like Gant, she has a wide range of interests and hobbies besides officiating, such as “dragon boat racing, kickboxing, bootcamp, yoga, grass volleyball, hiking and TRX training.”
Don Simon, Vice President of Baseball Operations and Game Assigner for the Northern California Umpires Association (NCUA), says he’s been working games for over 40 years. “My father was a youth umpire and a professional baseball player. One day I was needed and there I was — umpiring games.” It was the beginning of Simon’s long relationship with the trade of umpiring. He began his journey, jumping from pro baseball, to softball, to high school. “I went to pro school in 1977 and then from each year until 1979 was trained by Minor League Baseball. …After coaching for 12 years, I retired from coaching and returned full time to baseball umpiring. I also … am a qualified Amateur Softball Association (ASA) Championship Umpire, doing National ASA fast and slow pitch tournaments.” In all those years of officiating, Simon has had to make some extraordinary calls too, including calling every out in a triple play.
Eric Tow has been calling Northern California high school basketball games since 2003 for the NCBOA. Much like the other officials, he was inspired to ref by his own involvement. “After graduating high school, I wanted to be close to the game of basketball,” said Tow. “Knowing that I didn’t want to coach, I gave officiating a shot.” Tow is a financial analyst at UCSF when he is off the court.
Training and Expertise
While these referees have well-rounded lives off the playing field, that doesn’t mean they have inadequate experience on the playing field. Your high school refs belong to established, accredited sports associations that provide extensive training in their specific sport. For instance, the NCBOA mandates a six-week long basketball course and a tryout in order to become certified. Tow adds that, “We are independent contractors and we are free to do as much training as possible. Usually officials, who strive to be better, go to a camp in the summer. These camps are instructional.”
Simon, who is responsible for the NCUA training program, explains that the California Interscholastic Federation (the governing body for high school sports in California) and the NCUA require that umpires take 18 hours of classroom instruction and an additional four hours of field training each year in order to officiate at a high school game.
The volleyball referee from the NCVA detailed her yearly training, saying, “There would be a symposium for new officials held prior to the start of the season. We would learn how to keep score. Learn what are the expectations of an official. You would work with an experienced referee on the court using proper mechanics, whistling and protocols. You were given a copy of the Rulebook which was discussed and highlighted as to new rules and changes. There would be a two-hour training once a month on different topics and discussions on situations that each ref had experienced.”
Next time you question your ref’s expertise, think about the lesson learned in 2012 by the National Football League. When the NFL referees went on strike that year, the league used the now infamous “replacement refs.” After four weeks of painful officiating madness, the NFL took the hint and gave the real, qualified referees their jobs back. An important point was made: trained officials on the field make for a fair game.
Often when a call is missed, we fans mutter, “I could’ve made that call!” or, “This ref needs glasses!” But, get real––you couldn’t do it better. As the replacement referees showed us, professional officials make fair decisions. In fact, in a recent study of professional baseball umpires done by Brayden King and Jerry Kim, to be published in the journal Management Science and featured in The New York Times in March 2014, umpires were shown to call a pitch (considered one of the toughest umpiring jobs in sports) incorrectly just 14% of the time — an impressive stat, considering the speed and movement of pitches thrown in pro baseball.
Consider That Challenge
Although well trained and experienced, referees and umpires are not automatons programmed to call sports games. They are unique, multi-faceted people, with many stories and experiences to be told. So, when you’re in the heat of an emotional game––whether you’re playing, coaching, or watching––think about your approach to the refs.
“Referees are human,” Tow emphasizes. “We are prone to mistakes and are not always perfect. With that being said, if players and coaches treat referees with respect, they will most likely get a respectful answer. But what coaches and players tend to do is get upset and they usually get an emotional response from a referee.” Gant offers similar advice: “Every high school athlete should try to put him/herself in the shoes of the referee before acting in an unsportsmanlike manner.…I may not catch every single call, just as a player aims to shoot 100%, yet may miss a couple. Understand officials’ calls are final and cannot be turned back, so accept a respectful answer…Know that refs will gladly speak to you, we are not evil. If you speak to us respectfully we will certainly give you reasons behind a call or answer any questions.”
Next time you suit up and get in the game consider the “Third Team.” Believe it or not, refs and umps want to see you play your best and are willing to help you. Gant offers some invaluable advice to players about sportsmanship. “Try your hardest and don’t allow the refs to be a crutch or excuse for bad play. Respect the game. Leave it all on the court. Play on!”