Whether you are a high school principal, superintendent or athletic director, imagine instead for a moment that your role is that of a game official.
You’ve done your due diligence in confirming your game assignment with partners and the host school administrators. After arriving on site, your pregame conference with your partners was thorough and precise, and all is ready to go for a much-anticipated rivalry game.
But as you prepare for the jump ball to begin the game, a feeling of dread begins a swell of momentum in the recesses of your brain. As the game is in its early stages, you are working at a high level to effectively and accurately manage the contest, but you can’t shake some nagging questions:
Are my valuables safe? Will our locker room be filled with coaches afterward? Will a site supervisor be nearby to escort us to our locker room at the half and at the end of the game? What will be the exit strategy if the game turns contentious?
Even if these questions are addressed beforehand, they are very real concerns for officials, ones that are repeated each school year across the country.
“As I worked with young officials, I share with them that let’s not worry about these instances happening with regularity, but things do happen, and they need to be aware of them,” said Harry Kitts, a resident of Orange Beach, Alabama, and a Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) Hall of Famer after more than four decades of service as an official.
“Some schools do a terrific job of hosting officials, but there are others that, unfortunately, still don’t think much about it when it comes to providing accommodations and guidelines for officials.”
Longtime Farmington (Minnesota) High School activities director Bill Tschida is among those administrators across the country who prioritize hosting the contest officials and ensuring it is a positive experience for all.
“From the moment officials arrive at our school, I want them to feel welcomed,” Tschida says. “If I can do all I can to make them feel comfortable, they will give me, our students and our community a great game. My goal is that officials have an enjoyable experience at our school, so much in fact that they want to come back.”
But as most school administrators know all too well, site supervisors are pulled in multiple directions on a game night. One minute they are greeting teams, and in another moment they are making popcorn, not to mention assisting at the ticket booth or handling crowd control.
Game officials are certainly a patience bunch. While in-game management can be taxing, they strive to be fair and firm in administrating the rules of the game. Patience with coaches, players and fans can test emotional boundaries as well. In helping eliminate other concerns, officials can focus solely on the contest they are assigned.
“It has become a real challenge for site supervisors these days,’’ said Frank White, a retired official who is a member of the MSHSL’s Hall of Fame, and also a current member of the League’s Board of Directors. “Things certainly happen at the schools that can create uneasiness for officials.”
Perhaps the biggest concern for officiating crews is not knowing if they will have an escort to their locker room at halftime – and at the conclusion of the game. Whether the outcome was a 30-point blowout or a nail-biting finish with a perceived controversial call, wading through a crowd with no site supervisor or an assigned delegate can create an unwelcome problem.
White said that arriving at a locked locker room puts officials in jeopardy. Upon arrival in a locker room, even one that is unlocked, can await another issue. Many schools have set-ups where game officials are required to use coaches’ offices as changing rooms.
“The last thing you want to do is to go looking for a coach to let you into your locker room,” Kitts said. “Years ago, we had an elevated situation when we shared the same locker room as the home coaches. A yelling match started between the coach and my partner. I knew the coach, and had to say, “Coach, this is our locker room right now.”
Jim Robinson, a former Big Ten Conference men’s basketball official and the State Coordinator of Officials in Minnesota, says many schools have not kept up with the times in hosting and protecting officials.
“It’s gotten worse, in my opinion,” he said. “Some sites haven’t kept up with the times. We’ve got people that get agitated over calls, and because it is their child, they can go berserk on the officials and the site administration. Those can be very volatile, dangerous situations for our officials and fans.
“When I work with officials and schools, I tell them that they are a team. It is important for officials to be greeted when they arrive at the schools, and one of the things you go over is security before, during and after the games. Always know where your site supervisors are and where security can be found.”
“It’s not every game where you are going to have issues – it is situational,” Tschida said. “When I get a feeling that things are turning contentious, one of my jobs is to protect the officials.”
Other spaces that officiating crews have used for locker rooms include – but aren’t limited to – janitor’s closest, equipment rooms and special education classrooms – at least those are spaces on site. Some schools don’t have a space in which to change clothes, and officials are forced to arrive at the game site in uniform and change in the car or use a public restroom.
If the official uses a gym bag, he or she might stash it at the scorer’s table during the game. Even then, it is common for an official to steal a peek to ensure the bag is safe.
“We encourage all of our schools to do everything they can to provide a safe environment for officials,” said Pete Vrieze, commissioner of the Middle Border Conference in northwestern Wisconsin. “We talk about it at our meetings. We strive for consistency in how we host and treat the officials that work our games.”
Perhaps fueled by the Minnesota-led “Thank A Ref” campaign, an initiative that has gone national and backed by the National Association of Sports Officials, schools across the country are showing their appreciation for officials’ service.
Signs of appreciation have included providing a halftime or postgame snack, a towel for showering afterward, words of thanks over the public-address system and signs in the gymnasium. In Prescott, Wisconsin, youth players are selected for the coveted job of bringing water to the officials during time-outs.
“We take great pride in all we do to make each event memorable and safe,” Tschida said. “We want to treat officials like honored guests.”
Tim Leighton is communications coordinator for the Minnesota State High School League.