Whistle While They Work

There are 6,613 sports officials licensed by the Indiana High School Athletic Association, according to the organization. The referees, umpires and judges come from all over the state and encompass both genders and all walks of life.

They share, however, a common trait: the love of sports. Without these officials’ affection for athletics and willingness to work for a few bucks a night, the prep sports that shape our local youth would not be possible.

In the conclusion of this two-part series, the Daily Reporter touches base again with a handful of area whistleblowers to find out where they find their passion, and their patience.

Officials sometimes make mistakes. Do ‘makeup calls’ really exist?

Curt Anderson (basketball, football, softball, volleyball official from Greenfield): “To me, the makeup call doesn’t exist. If we make a mistake, we learn from it. That’s it. There is no such thing as a makeup call for me. I call them as I see them. If I blow it, then it’s not right for me to blow it twice.”

Jeff Dixon (basketball, football official from Greenfield): “There is no such thing as a makeup call … I’ll tell you what. Here’s the biggest thing when you blow your whistle. And this happens more with newer officials than with seasoned ones. A lot of times, you see a person driving to the basket, and you’re like, ‘Oh my (gosh), they’re going to foul him,’ and you blow your whistle in midair. Then you realize they never touched him. You think, ‘Oh my (gosh), that was really bad! Next time down the floor, I’ll just smooth it over,’ and then you call something you haven’t called all game, or you make something up just to undo what you did wrong on the opposite end. … You can’t do all of that. Being an official is about integrity. It’s about being a pro. You cannot have makeup calls.”

Do ‘flopping’ and similar tactics from players fool an official?

Ron Allen (football, basketball, softball, volleyball official from Charlottesville): “Yeah, we see the LeBron flop. But no, we see through that. No theatrics fool us. It doesn’t affect us at all.”

Anderson: “Most times we know a flop when we see one. It happened recently to me in a bigger game. … Two big kids were going at each other, then one kid fell to the ground like he was shot (laughs). It was the biggest flop I’ve ever seen. The guys on the court started laughing. The kid got up with a smile. It was funny … Most of the time that stuff does not work. I’ll say, ‘You need to be a better actor than you are a basketball player.’ You have to have fun with the kids. ‘Come on, man. You have to do better than that.’ Usually they laugh, and the game becomes more fun and relaxed.”

Jennifer Leffler (basketball, softball, volleyball official from Shelbyville): “It’s gotten to be a little more of a challenge. This flop thing from LeBron James and the NBA, it filters down from there to the lower ranks. For me, trying to know the difference between a person trying to get a call and person who should get a call: It’s a challenge.”

Which sport is easier to officiate, football or basketball?

Anderson: “Football. Because you can throw a flag and pick up and go, ‘Nope, that didn’t happen.’ In basketball, you can’t do that. Plus in football, the fans are so much farther away. You can hear them, but they’re not right on top of you like basketball. Plus, this is Indiana basketball we’re talking about. In Indiana, everyone is an official.”

Does being an official take away from your love of the sport?

John Collins (basketball, football, softball official from Wilkinson): “I have found myself over the years, even as a basketball fan, watching the game as an official in an unbiased way. … In my opinion, most of the time, the officials are correct. But when I watch now, I don’t get bent out of shape if I disagree with a call. I don’t yell when I watch a game, although I may want to sometimes.”

Leffler: “It’s really difficult now. I watch them (the officials) more than I watch the game sometimes. I try to put myself in their shoes, but the angles are always different. I always find myself saying things like, ‘Gosh, I don’t know what they saw on that one.’”

How do you deal with excitable coaches and/or players?

Dixon: “You always have to stay impartial. You have to remember coaches are there to coach the ball game. They are like the boss or CEO of a company. They have to protect their interests and their kids’ interest. To me, you have to do it that way. But there are coaches out there who you really can’t give any slack to. Some guys, if you do that, you’ll lose control of the game. You can’t have that.”

Allen: “I’ll go over and warn the bench unless its bad enough that you have to (call a technical) right away. If they say things like, ‘How much are they paying you,’ automatic tech. If you want to argue, I’ve told you in the pregame meeting what’s acceptable and what’s not. I tell them to be respectful. Approach us in an appropriate manner, and we’ll reciprocate. If you want to question a call, feel free to ask us, and we can come over and explain it to you.”

Is it difficult not to reciprocate when coaches scream at you?

Allen: “It’s hard to stay calm. But it depends on each guy’s personality. I’ve seen guys get right back in a coach’s face. It’s the personality a guy went through life with. If he’s the kind of person where if a guy attacks him, he attacks him back, that’s probably how he’ll be on the court. My personality is more laid back. I think it helps tremendously. I have a lot of buddies that want to get into this, and I say, ‘This is not your suit. You’ll snap somebody’s head off.’ You have to be thick-skinned and laid back to do this job.”

What do you think of officials getting animated with their calls?

Dixon: “I hate it. When a guy runs like ten steps forward to make a call, I hate that. I try to stand my ground and make the call where I’m at. When you make a call, you try to give your partner time to look over so they know what you’re calling. Throw your hands straight up, and if you want, you can throw it down, but don’t run screaming ‘Ahhhhh!!!’ down the court to make a call.”

Leffler: “I don’t do that kind of thing. I understand the importance of selling a call, but there’s a difference between wanting the spotlight to be on you and selling a call. I’ve seen officials who like to be seen. My opinion is if coaches, players and fans didn’t realize you were out there, then you’ve done your job. They didn’t come to watch the people in stripes.”

Ms. Leffler, do you face any difficulties being a female official?

Leffler: “I think sometimes the perception is, especially in basketball and this being Indiana where there is still a lot of old-school thinking, that I might not know what I’m doing. I still do work on the boys side, but I don’t get quite as many opportunities. It just has to do with people having the misconception that a female official can’t call a boys game. Working on the girls side of things, coaches are happy to see a female official. It’s good for their players to see females working their games.”

Approximately how many female officials are there in Indiana?

Leffler: “I think there’s probably, at the varsity level, maybe 20 female officials in the state. When I was an applicant for the girls tournament last season, there were 520 applicants. Out of those 520, there were probably five female officials who applied.”

What is one of the worst experiences you have had as an official?

Anderson: “I did a football game this year, and there was a fumble. There was a big pile, and I had to get to the bottom of it to see who got possession. … We started peeling kids off, and I see this kid punching another one. Of course, we said, ‘You’re done. Get out of here.’ But later, he comes up from behind me and pushes me in the back. He had to be ejected.”

Leffler: “I did have kind of a negative situation happen working a boys game once. (My daughter) came with me and sat up in the stands. It was a pretty packed gym. The rivalry between these two schools was intense. During the game, the refs kind of got hollered at a bit, and my daughter got upset by comments that were made. It was hard for her. I just told her after the game that you can’t take it personally. It was hard for her to understand the nature of that.”

Do you ever feel like you need to get out quick after a game?

Anderson: “Oh yeah. We disappear. Sometimes we have a car parked at the entrance. There was a football game at Franklin Central this year, and it didn’t end in the home team’s favor. They were hoping we would overturn a last-second touchdown after a dramatic comeback. But we agreed, there was no way we could overturn the call. We got a police escort out to the cars. You wouldn’t believe the venom fans can use. That’s why I always tell my guys, you can’t be too careful. There’s a reason why when we’re running off the field or court, we tuck the whistles into our shirt. It’s because you never know who will come out of the crowd and grab you by the whistle and choke you. If someone grabs you, it could be like a leash. You have to be safe.”

Allen: “I wouldn’t say we’ve been chased across the court, but we’ve been walked fast at across the court by some parents. I don’t get it. It (was) a fourth grade basketball game. It’s not life or death. I mean, come on.”

Looking toward the future, do you have ambitions as an official?

Collins: “I have never wanted to make it a career. I still have four kids in school and I have my full-time job. My goal is to eventually get to the point where I’m reffing sectional games and maybe in 10 or 15 years, do a state finals game.”

Allen: “Some guys work to be in the tourney, but it’s not one of my big goals. Maybe someday. My kids are all still in school. I have kids from a senior to third grade, and I don’t want to commit the time it takes to be a regional final official right now.”

What advice would you give someone looking to become an official?

Allen: “First, you have to love the sport, and you have to love the kids, obviously. It’s all about them anyway. It’s about them playing and learning sportsmanship. That’s first. The next piece of advice I’d give them is be thick-skinned. It’s better to be a little more easygoing than hyper … or sensitive, because you’re going to get yelled at.”

How much officials make

Approximate IHSAA high school sports officials’ pay, according to local officials and administrators.

Basketball:

7th and 8th grade (both games): $50-80 (total)

Freshman: $50-55

JV game $55-70

Varsity: $75-80

Football

7th and 8th grade (both games): $75

JV football games $60-65

Varsity: $75-90

Other sports: $50-80 per (JV/varsity) game

How officials are scheduled

There are two avenues for officials to be designated games, through a school’s athletics director or through an assignor. With the first option, an athletics director contacts a individual referee and asks if he would like to officiate a game. With the second option — an increasingly popular option among state schools — the school works with an assignor who has been paid by officials to arrange games.

In Hancock County, all four public high schools use the services of an assignor to some degree. Greenfield-Central uses assignors to schedule officials, “whenever possible,” according to A.D. Jared Manning. Mt. Vernon uses an assignor for soccer, baseball and softball. At Eastern Hancock, A.D. Aaron Spaulding has an assignor schedule officials for all sports except track and field, cross-country and swimming. New Palestine explains its use below. 

Charlottesville-based veteran official Ron Allen works through assignor Curt Anderson (who also works as an official). Allen explains the process:

“An assignor will evaluate you (to determine skill level) and then put you in a certain game. When you have newer guys, you might not want them to have the bigger games. … You usually pay (the assignor) some type of fee, about $25 or $30 dollars per sport. You mostly pay them for computer work, organizing the schedule. The money is a minimal amount to what you make. Most of the time, an AD gets with an (assignor) they trust can get them good officials. … One assignor may have like 12 schools he works with. Another may have like four. Officials just have to figure out who these guys are.”

New Palestine athletics director Al Cooper talks about his schools pervasive use of assignors.

“We use assignors in basketball, baseball, soccer and softball. We schedule every other sport through our office, (such as) wrestling, football, cross-country, gymnastics, track, swimming, etc.”

“Assignors provide a valuable service with regard to making one call, or email to procure an official for a cancellation due to weather. Additionally, they have a large talented group to send our way. Some who are very familiar with each other and work as groups or pairs. Their service is invaluable to rescheduling and efficiency of an athletic office.”