Games without officials? Don’t even think about it!

It has always been popular to criticize officials at every level of sports competition. There are times parents and fans probably wonder, “What would sports be like if we didn’t have to put up with those men and women in stripes?”

If that’s what you’re thinking, think again. It would be far uglier than it is with officials.

Here’s a case in point. About 35 or so years ago, I was officiating a pre-season basketball scrimmage between Hesston College and Tabor College in Hillsboro. The scrimmage, with three of us officiating, was uneventful. But after a time, two of my partners had to leave. I sat down to change my shoes before walking home.

The scrimmage continued without officials, and before long, a skirmish broke out on the court. The coaches asked if I would stay and continue to officiate by myself. Seriously? As I recall, I did. What was I thinking? It’s hard enough to officiate with three people, but it’s impractical to do it by yourself.

The point is, as bad as you may think games are with officials, just imagine what it would be like without them. Because of potential fights and unmediated conflict, it gets ugly fast, even in a pre-season scrimmage.

All that to say, officials are integral to athletic competition at every level.

When I started officiating, I was admittedly naive and thought that coaches would appreciate my efforts at doing the best I could as an official on the basketball court or soccer field. Again, what was I thinking? I never said I was particularly bright.

On one occasion, the Hillsboro rec director asked me to be the plate umpire for a game between two Hillsboro baseball teams. The rec director apparently knew there might be some extra tension in this game and wanted a reasonably experienced official, or maybe a glutton for punishment, calling the game.

Before long, one team had a big lead and the coach of the losing team was becoming increasingly irate over my strike zone. Finally, the coach came to home plate and gave me a loud earful in front of everyone. For once in my life, I was halfway smart and let him blow off steam.

After a time, I tossed the coach and told him that when he left, we’d finish the game. Funny, but I don’t remember hearing much yelling from the fans. I think they were somewhat embarrassed by the coach’s actions.

In spite of a few clunkers and not-so-positive moments, when I look in the rearview mirror at my 40-year basketball officiating career, I can honestly say I enjoyed it most of the time.

There have been rumblings for a few years now that the number of officials in Kansas and around the nation is declining. I contacted someone who would know what the situation is in our state.

Francine Martin is assistant executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association. Martin has served in this position since joining the staff 18 years ago. During her tenure, Martin has been responsible for the administration of basketball, cross country, baseball, and softball programs, the KSHSAA Coaching School, and other responsibilities. She was also involved with general interpretation of KSHSAA rules for the member schools.

As a basketball official, I first learned to know Martin as the El Dorado H.S. girls basketball coach, and then as athletic director before she assumed the role with KSHSAA.

Recently I asked her about the officiating situation in Kansas. She acknowledged that the shortage of officials has been coming for several years, prior to the pandemic, but she said, “The pandemic probably sped up the decreased number of registered officials. But it isn’t just in basketball. It is in all sports we have seen a decrease. And the challenge isn’t just with KSHSAA officials – it is in youth league and college levels also.”

With Ms. Martin’s help, I’ll take a deeper dive into the issues facing the state when it comes to officiating in my next column.

In the meantime, before throwing all officials under the bus, be careful what you wish for.

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