Sideline Slants: Make no mistake, officiating can be hazardous to your health

In nearly 28 years of high school and college basketball officiating I’ve seen and heard plenty. Fortunately I’ve never personally experienced what took place during a professional football game in Cleveland last month.

NFL referees and players ran for cover when fans threw bottles onto the field in reaction to a decision on the field. The next day, an official’s call led to more debris being thrown on the field in New Orleans.

I have personally witnessed a few fights among players and many more near fights. I’ve ejected a coach and I’ve seen my partners eject others.

I’ve been called every name under the sun by fans, although most of those names were covered by the crowd noise.

A few coaches have made it clear that they prefer that I do something other than referee basketball games, like maybe hand-feed starving crocodiles and grizzly bears.

On rare occasions I’ve received police protection from the gymnasium to my car. In some cases school administrators tried to discourage trouble by having five or six security officers ring the court during pre-game warm-ups.

These experiences aren’t unique to me. They are standard fare for anyone who officiates varsity sports for any length of time.

Having said that, I consider myself lucky. I’ve yet to be physically attacked, although while officiating a college soccer game years ago, a player hit me with a thrown ball.

The calendar says I’m on the downhill side of my officiating career. Some coaches would say, “So what else is new?”

Seriously though, I’ve always taken officiating seriously. I honestly try to evaluate my performance. I look for ways to improve. Sometimes I agonize over a bad or questionable call. Occasionally I have trouble sleeping at night because a specific play keeps getting replayed in my head.

My wife and son occasionally watch me officiate. They would come more often if I asked them to, but I don’t. Why have them listen to profanity and other verbal abuse directed at me?

I’ve experienced a lot of highs and lows as a high school and college basketball official. Generally, I’ve found that getting paid while getting exercise and watching talented athletes up close and personal outweighs the verbal abuse.

My concern is for up-and-coming officials. Society doesn’t seem to be as forgiving as it used to be, and the risk of violence is alarming. The attitude seems to be when a mistake is made someone has to pay. Someone has to take the blame. That’s how life is.

Verbal abuse is unfortunate and inappropriate, but no decision by an official, no matter how important, warrants a threat to his or her physical well being.

Years ago, a college official told me that it’s outstanding if he only missed two or three calls during a game. He’s right.

There may be nights I only miss two or three calls in a game, but there are undoubtedly others when I miss more.

Do the math. For the sake of argument, let’s say that I average three missed calls per game. I usually officiate at least 50 games a season. That translates to more than 150 bad calls per season and 4,050 missed calls during my career. That’s humbling and discouraging, but hey, I never said I was perfect. I wonder if there’s a rule that says you have to retire when you reach 5,000 mistakes?

With a few exceptions, fans, coaches, administrators and players have generally forgiven me for being less than perfect. They know that I know I’m not perfect.

I’m only half joking when I tell younger officials that the main difference between a veteran official and a new official is that veteran officials have made more bad calls.

Most officials put on a striped shirt because they love athletics. It’s a way to give something back to the game.

Nearly everyone involved in athletics agrees that officials should be evaluated. Ultimately, those formal and informal evaluations determine whether an official continues to receive games in a particular league or conference. Having said that, no official should face a physical threat for being an official.

In Cleveland, the officials ran for their lives. Up to this point I haven’t had to run for mine.

You may not like the officiating. You may despise the officiating. But at least be thankful that someone is willing to do it.

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