At any given sporting event, there’s usually at least one person who feels compelled to heckle officials with blunt queries like “Hey, ref! What are you, blind?” or “Hey, ref! How much is the other team paying you for that hatchet job?” or “Hey, ref! [Insert a preferred unsportsmanlike comment here].”
The list goes on.
In his 12th year of officiating high school, junior high, and recreational league sporting events, sports official Russ Cain of Marion has heard his fair share of scathing remarks.
“You got to be deaf in your ears,” he said. “Lots of times they don’t even know you can hear them from the court. Sometimes you want to say, ‘Hey, you don’t know the rules,’ but you just have to tune those people out when you hear comments like that.”
Over the years he’s noticed that upset people who yell rude remarks were likely not at a vantage point that afforded them the same line of sight on calls he’s made.
“Refereeing is all about angles,” Cain said. “[In basketball] we’re always moving because it’s important to see the whole court as best you can. Sometimes you don’t get all the calls right, but it’s very rare you get it wrong.”
To become and maintain his status as a registered sports official, Cain has to pass state activities association courses, and attend rules meetings.
“They don’t make you take an eye exam,” Cain said, “but maybe that would be a good idea.
“It’s our job to make the game as fair as we possibly can for the kids. It’s all for the kids. They could play the same game on the street, but it wouldn’t be a fair game. Calling a fair game is the only reason we’re out on the court.”
At the rec league level, he said letting certain calls go is the hardest thing to do as a referee.
“Some parents yell ‘travel, travel, travel’ and ‘foul’ all the time,” he said. “It’s like, ‘OK people we know they’re traveling.’ The thing is, both teams are usually doing it. They’re still learning.”
He said officials typically start calling “everything they see” at the junior high A-team level of play.
“We still don’t call things we see in junior high C-team games, but we call a junior high A-team game the same way we would a varsity high school game,” he said. “The only thing that changes for us is the speed of the game. It gets much faster.”
Aside from a heightened sense of selective hearing, Cain said referees need to have strong people skills and be good communicators because of the emotionally charged and physically intense atmosphere nail-biting games conjure.
He said referees work in groups of two or three depending on the level of play. Cain usually confers with partners about certain situations in pregame.
“We have hand signals that let each other know who will make the call on something like a last-second shot or who will watch the ball and who will watch [players in] the paint,” he said.
Cain became a referee because of his enthusiasm for basketball, baseball, and softball.
“I love doing it,” he said. “I coached for a long time before I became a referee.”
At the rec level, Cain has started to recruit some high school kids who want to learn how to officiate.
“I run the floor with them and coach them on what they need to do, where they need to be, to make the calls they need to be make,” Cain said. “If they miss something, I’ll point it out. It’s really neat — some of the kids who used to throw their hand up on a foul now say they understand the game better and see it differently. ”
He said there is a tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with officiating versus just watching a game unfold from the stands. He said officials regularly check with each other to confirm that they all saw the same thing, especially if there is contention from either team. If other officials saw something different, they have the chance to change the call before they vocally report it.
“I would love to see every parent get out there on the court and try to referee,” Cain said. “You can say whatever you want in the stands and it’s not going to change anything, but when a ref blows their whistle it matters. It means something to the kids and their coach because the call will have a direct effect on the game.”