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, include both men and women and encompass all walks of life.
But they share a love of sports. Without their willingness to work for a few bucks a night, prep sports would not be possible.
In the first of a two-part series, The Daily Reporter reached out to a handful of area whistleblowers to find out where they find their passion and their patience.
What are some of your favorite aspect about the job of officiating?
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Curt Anderson (basketball, football, softball, volleyball official from Greenfield): “I love it, honestly. I tell everybody this as a joke: I’m going to get yelled at whether I’m at home or on the court. The way I look at it might as well get paid for it (laughs). My wife made me the ref I am now. I have two girls who already graduated, and I was a big part of their lives. I coached them from when they were little. … But after I was done coaching, I felt like there was this void in my life. (Eventually I thought), what better way to make some extra money and have the time of your life than by officiating. I still get to be part of game I love.”
Ron Allen (football, basketball, softball, volleyball official from Charlottesville): “There are two parts to that. I deal with a lot friends, a couple I work with at the city of Greenfield, and I like that we can do our night job together. I have fun traveling with them and spending weekends with them too, you know, doing AAU and youth boys and girls games. That’s always good. … The second part is working with the kids. Plus it helps me stay involved with sports, to be active and exercise and all that good stuff.”
Jennifer Leffler (basketball, softball, volleyball official from Shelbyville): “Probably, actually the camaraderie between other officials. The friendships that I have developed with other officials and school administrators and people at the scorers table. You see the same people a lot and just become friends. It’s kind of surprising. I didn’t think that was going to happen. I didn’t come into this thinking I was going to make new friends. But I have. It’s been a blessing.”
Jeff Dixon (basketball, football official from Greenfield): “I’ve always felt like my favorite part is the fact I can bring a positive influence to the game of basketball. I want to be one of those guys who is passionate about a sport and be a positive member of what you’re doing. A lot of guys do it for the wrong reasons. I felt like if I stepped onto the court tonight, and I didn’t know everything I should know, then I wouldn’t be out there doing it.”
John Collins (basketball, football, softball official from Wilkinson): “Reffing around here quite a bit, you get to know a lot of the people. That makes it a little bit more fun. You get harassed (by a coach you know), and its on a personal level, it can be more fun.”
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about officials?
Leffler: “I think probably that it is an us-against-them mentality. The majority of us are out there because we love the game. People are just very passionate about their sport, and they start thinking that we’re out there to get somebody. That’s pretty much the main misconception.”
Dixon: “Another misconception is that all officials call games the same. That’s not true. All officials call things different ways. Some officials like to let things play. Some officials call things closer. As long as you stay professional and do what is right, you’re doing OK. You have to remember, you are not just representing yourself out there. You’re representing every official licensed by IHSAA. That’s a big responsibility if you choose to take it that way. If you don’t, you probably shouldn’t be officiating.”
What is an official’s typical schedule like?
Dixon: “You can let it consume you if you want, but I work probably five out of seven days a week. … I work mostly on my days off. Sometime I’ll take comp time, so I can go officiate. The other night, I took two hours of comp time at work to go referee a ball game at G-C.”
Leffler: “During basketball (season), I typically work two to three nights during the workweek and usually on Saturday. So three to four nights a week. It’s pretty much the same with volleyball, although that season is more a compact season and can get a little more hectic.
How much money does an official make?
Allen: “Varsity (basketball) is probably about $75 a game. In football, varsity is kind of the same, around $75, all the way down to one JV game is about $50 or $60. With volleyball, I have not done a whole lot of games. It’s probably about $25 to $30 a game, but I’m not positive. In softball, the guys behind the plate make $10 to $15 more — $75 probably for behind the plate and $60 to $65 for the on-base guy. The lowest you go is on Sundays in (youth league or AAU) basketball, and it’s about 25 bucks a game, but you usually do five or six games.”
What are the qualities that make a strong official?
Anderson: “There are a few key essences to being an official. First, you have to look like you’re an official. It’s your presentation of yourself. If you look crisp, then people will treat you with respect. … Another thing I look for is if an official hustles and gets into position. You don’t want to give a coach a reason to question your judgement. You want to be able to say, ‘Hey coach, here’s what I saw, and here’s why I made the call I did.’ Most of the time, that pacifies a coach. If not, then I just tell him we’ll have to agree to disagree.
“But the most important aspect of being an official is credibility. I’ve been called a homer, but the thing is, none of us sit in the locker room choosing teams. Our goal out there is to be invisible. I always tell my guys, ‘Today there will be a home team, a visiting team and us. Let’s try to be the best team out there. If we are, that’s an accomplishment.’ Our goal is to be invisible and to do our jobs.’”
What is the most difficult aspect of officiating?
Anderson: “Getting past the fear. It’s the first thing you have to do. You do it by getting all the info you need, and that develops confidence. Then you have to put yourself to the test and learn from your mistakes. It’s a trial with plenty of errors. But when you become competent, then you become confident. You have to have confidence as an official. If you don’t, fans can see it. Coaches can see it. Without confidence, they can smell blood in the water.”
Collins: “The toughest thing about being an official, from my standpoint, is fans not knowing the specifics of the rules. Here’s an example: There’s a lot people who yell ‘over the back’ during a game. Here’s the thing: There is no such rule as over the back. It doesn’t exist. It’s not in the rule book. Here’s another one: The other day a girl dove for a loose ball and skidded 10 feet across the floor. That’s not traveling. Fans not interpreting the rules right drives me crazy. Most coaches are pretty set on the rules.”
How do you keep your skills sharp during the season?
Collins: “You don’t want to have a situation come up in the game where you don’t know what to do. I reread the rule book every couple of weeks, and the IHSAA provides online rules meetings. You can take a 20- to 30-minute online class that goes over some of the newer rules. There are a few websites where officials discuss calls, and you can talk about what you would do.”
Anderson: “I went to Tech High School recently where they … had some of the best officials in the state come and film us and critique us. They gave us pointers and helped us get better. It was great. That’s what I love about being a referee. I love meeting new people and having friendships. It’s like a brotherhood, and I’m proud to be a member.”
Do you ever watch a play on tape to see if you got it right?
Anderson: “Heck yeah. We go back and watch plays. I always tell people, we’re more critical of ourselves than anybody. We understand the sacrifice that these kids and coaches make. We work hard too, and if our call, or non-call, determined a game, that bothers you. You want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. So I encourage coaches to send us their games tape. I’ll give them my phone number after a game, or I’ll contact a school.”
What is the best way to handle when you’ve missed a call?
Dixon: “I did that the other night. There was a girl … who carried the ball, and I missed it. But she definitely did it. I didn’t go over to him (the opposing coach) right away, but I heard him say something about it. And you just keep that in the back of your head. Then when the other team was shooting free throws, I walked over and said, ‘Hey coach, I heard you on the sidelines. You were right. She carried the ball. I saw it, but I didn’t call it. That’s my fault.’ Coaches have more respect for you when you’re honest with them. ‘I didn’t see it’ is an easy cop-out.”
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To become an IHSAA licensed official
- Take a computer generated open-book test and score 75 percent or better. Rule books are sent for study before the test.
- The cost of applying to take a test in a sport is $50 for up to three sports in one year. No money will be refunded.
- Once licensed, individuals must join one of 24 officials associations throughout the state and attend an annual rules interpretation meeting.
- Annual renewal fee $67, good for up to three sports.
- Also, the IHSAA has implemented a new background checking process under which all newly licensed officials are initially checked and a third of all officials are checked annually.
In order to work an IHSAA state tournament, registered officials must become a certified official. Requirements:
- During or after the second year as a licensed official in a sport, score 90 percent or above on the most recent certification test in that sport.
- Attend the IHSAA sponsored rules interpretation meeting that sport for the year.
- Attend the IHSAA sponsored certification clinic in that sport in the year of the certification.
- Certification clinics and tests are given every two years.
Source: IHSAA.org, ArbiterSports.com
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“The IHSAA is always accepting individuals to serve as contest officials across all sports. The importance of having quality officials in all sports is critical to the education based athletic process. The reality of our rules provides that contests may not be conducted without licensed officials. The existing opportunities for individuals to become licensed officials provides the candidate the chance to stay connected with a sport they enjoy, provides opportunities for young people to participate in interscholastic sports and the chance to earn a bit of money in the process.”
Bobby Cox, Indiana High School Athletic Association commissioner