Best Seats in the House
by Miles A Hood | published Oct. 12th, 2020
Every game has rules but not everyone may know them, which can lead to some hectic moments. Sporting events have officials whose sole job is to remember those rules and enforce them.
If you ever wondered what it was like to be an official, I've got you covered. I sat down and talked to three officials who have overseen their fair share of games. These gentlemen are students of the game and experts in their craft.
All the Rules and Regulations
Becoming an official and becoming certified, across most sports, is pretty standard. You join an association of officials and go through classroom and hands-on training.
One local association for basketball officiating is Board 60. They've been officiating games in Wayne, Monroe, Ontario and other counties across the state since 1921. Board 60 trains, recruits and provides officials for local basketball games at all levels from youth to high school.
The football equivalent in Rochester would be the Rochester Chapter of Certified Football Officials (RCCFO). This chapter was founded in 1925 and serves Monroe, Orleans and other surrounding counties. They officiate for all levels of organized football from Youth with Pop Warner to Varsity, within Section V.
From there, you’re assigned to the lower level and youth leagues (like Pop Warner football or middle school games). After roughly three seasons, you are eligible to move on to officiate varsity games at the high school level. While in training, you will attend clinics that are taught by veteran officials and possibly Division 1 (D1), or officials from professional leagues like the NBA and NFL.
Once you pass a written exam administered by your governing body, you’re given your stripes and sent out into the field. That’s where you put what you learned to the test.
The First Game
Take a moment to think about the first time you ever experienced. What emotions come to mind? Any vivid memories? The nerves, the sweaty palms, weak knees — anybody? Hopefully, you didn’t have any of your mom’s spaghetti.
For the officials I talked to, they each had their own version of nerves and had a memorable story to go along with it.
Ryan Chapman, an official with eight years experience for basketball in both high school and college, sat with me and talked about some of his wilder stories.
"My first JUCO [junior college] game, the teams had a few technical fouls in the previous game. So, we had each of them meet before the game. One of the coaches refused to come into the meeting. So, once we moved past that and the game is physical, a coach had an issue with a call and my partner tossed him and then some crazy fans stormed the court and we had to toss them as well ...That was my introduction to junior college basketball,” Chapman told.
I also talked with Rob Reed, with four years of officiating under his belt at the high school and middle school level. He talked to me about his first game.
Reed said, “It was nerve wracking, but I felt very well prepared like I knew what I was getting myself into still being a rookie — I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Board 60 had me prepared and eased me in.”
Reed's first overtime game was more memorable to him.
“It was an added layer of complexity, as the game gets shorter and shorter everything matters, I remember having great partners ... He [the partner] told me 'A foul is a foul, a travel is a travel, and we’ll get through this,'” he said.
Kenny Johnson, a 23-year veteran official of the local high school football scene, spoke to me about his earlier years as an official.
He stated, “It waschallenging starting, because coaches know when you’re new, and they’ll try and get you out of your game. I lost control in that game, going back and forth with the coach and then I was taken out of the game. They [RCCFO] said I wasn’t ready to move up to the next level.”
Johnson then reflected on his initial years officiating.
“Now that I’ve had the 24 years of experience, I know when that game is being played. But at that time, it was tough,” Johnson said.
For the Love of the Game
I came to find out more about the officials perspective on the game — what brought them to the position and what keeps them going.
Johnson was brought in by his friend Leo Rhodes as a way to stay connected with the game they both loved.
Chapman had been involved in basketball since a young age and tried his hand at coaching before he entered officiating.
Reed is a former player at Roberts Wesleyan, and after graduating he started coaching and won a few titles over 12 years as a coach. After a brief hiatus from sports to start his family, he jumped into officiating and has enjoyed it ever since.
Each of these men had similar motivations in getting into the sport: they all loved the game they now help run. That love is also what pushes the continuous improvement they put into the game.
“You do it cause you love it ... we oversee about five counties, somedays I’ve traveled around 100 miles. Fifty there and 50 back,” Reed told.
He continued, “I don’t have an endgame — just to continue to improve and continue to enjoy it. When I was a player [and a coach] I would always try and get better. Now I watch game tapes of myself always asking other refs how can I get better. That’s ultimately what’s enjoyable: getting better at something.”
On top of officiating with Board 60, Reed has been teaching UPK for the last 25 years.
“It’s not uncommon to leave the house at 7 a.m. and then come back 9:30 to 10 o’clock at night,” Reed stated.
His fellow Board 60 member, Chapman, also said that he would instantly take an opportunity to go pro or D1.
“If I was to secure a certain number of games ... that’s the goal for anyone in my level,” Chapman said.
Johnson, who has been officiating longer than others, cited the atmosphere of high school football as his motivation to stay.
“I’m perfectly content with doing high school football, there’s nothing like it,” he said.
Johnson also noted the connections he had with his fellow officials.
“In Section V we have a rotating cast of guys, but they’re all really smart and I love working with them. I’ve accomplished most of my personal goals and then I just want to do what’s best for the team,” Johnson explained.
That love of the game is what fuels the passion of not only the players and coaches, but also their fans. You can look up any number of incidents of blown calls, missed calls or even worse collusion for cheating (see Tim Donaghy of the NBA) and see the visceral reaction from analysts and fans alike all over the internet. That passion also fuels a disconnect between the fans and the refs.
“People don’t understand the rules in-depth,” Chapman said.
He continued, “They see it at the NFL level and they expect it to be in the high school and youth level. An uncatchable ball is not a rule in high school, so if there’s contact [to a receiver] even on a ball that’s 10 yards overthrown, I have to call that.”
Reed told me that the game is all about control; being in control of not only the game, but also the surrounding factors.
Beyond noting the tension with fans, both Chapman and Johnson also pointed out that coaches can be important in controlling how fans react to the referee.
Johnson said, “A young player was too aggressive in this game, and so I told the coach you have to take her out to calm down.”
Johnson went on to say that in that situation, the players’ parents got in his face and another fan got in his face as well. Johnson and his team of officials decided to leave for their safety.
Even with that passion, there are some bright spots from fans, coaches and players.
“Some coaches tell their players and fans, 'only I talk to the ref, no one else better say a word to him.' I’m thankful for times like that.” Johnson told.
Reed also chimed in.
He said, “Every game is important to the players and coaches, so I try to keep an even manner when I’m out there ... I think that understanding comes from my time as a player and a coach. It makes it easier to communicate with them [the coaches], [it] gives me a bit of an advantage.”
Reed also said, “In all of my time, officiating is the most challenging. Players can make a mistake, coaches can make a mistake and a few people may know but if an official makes a mistake everyone knows.”
This disconnect can add a level of tension that can become uncomfortable, possibly hostile. So, next time you’re at a game, remember the officials are people just as much as the players and yourself. They make mistakes and can’t catch everything.
Officials. Like, love or hate them, they're a part of the game. That is never going away. However, there is a shortage of young referees to take over for veterans like Johnson, who are planning to hang up the stripes.
“Most of our board is over 55. Sometimes we have to double-dip. We have to work a JV game and a Varsity game when we have a shortage.” Chapman stated.
Even in football, the RCCFO is having trouble maintaining young referees.
“The aggression of the fans is probably the top reason, but also the time commitment. The teams you work with get smaller in lower levels. Three in modified (middle school) and JV, and five in varsity.” Johnson explained.
He also stated, “They want to bring a fourth to those lower levels, but we just can’t always do that because of the shortage.”
So, if you love a sport that you played in high school and still want to be involved, or want to learn more about a specific game and get paid to do it, officiating might be an option for you. Visit http://www.board60.com or https://rccfo.com to learn more about the governing bodies for football and basketball officials for the Rochester area and hopefully start your next great adventure.