Officiating in Maine, Part 3: Those watchful eyes have multiplied

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Game tied. Seven seconds remaining in overtime of a tense boys‘ basketball game replete with tournament ramifications.

Visiting team just missed its bid for a game-winning jump shot. Home team corrals the rebound with seven seconds remaining, enough time to dribble down for its own desperation heave.

Three referees — now the state’s norm for many regular-season games and all playoff contests — hustle into proper position. The hosts find the open man on the fly, but a defender’s presence of mind and wing span prevail, deflecting the shot far from its target.

One player wearing a white jersey and another dressed in green stumble after the wayward ball, chasing it across the baseline as time expires. There is contact, falling somewhere on an imaginary spectrum between incidental and a hip check. Green keeps his balance. White gets a floor burn.

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You make the call.

A) The play and the period were over. Toss it up and play four more minutes.

B) Loose ball foul on green. Two free throws (by now, both teams are in the double bonus) for white.

C) Technical foul for an intentional and flagrant foul after the horn. Same end result as ‘B’ above.

Go ahead. Think it over. We’ll wait.

Well, you had to be there. Or did you?

And anyway, it’s open to interpretation. Or is it?

That scenario unfolded in a cozy Class B gymnasium last February. The official positioned fewer than six feet from the scene of the collision — a veteran of more than 20 hardwood winters and countless postseason games — blew his whistle and immediately, unequivocally selected ‘B.’

He was met at half court by a flabbergasted coach and berated loudly by the traveling spectators sequestered in one corner of the auditorium, all firmly convinced that the bump was inconsequential and occurred after time expired.

Calmly the official huddled with his two partners, confirming their version of events. Consensus matched the initial call. One free throw, true and twine-tickling, ended the game.

The striped trio raced off the court and into the safety of their dressing room, with school officials and police officers scurrying into position to intercept any plucky dissenters.

Three hundred fans went home happy. Two hundred more spent a longer drive muttering and second-guessing. Both teams eventually punctuated their stellar season with a tournament appearance.

VITRIOL GOES VIRAL

Ten, twenty or fifty years ago, that would have been it. The shelf life of any controversy was as long as it took for the bitter word of mouth to vanish into thin air.

My, how times have changed.

“It’s becoming a little more difficult because there’s more outside influences (on officials) than before,” veteran basketball official and baseball umpire Jeff Benson said. “They see much more through the media than they probably did before. With the advent of all that media and technology, officials are even more under the gun, because your mistakes get magnified.”

Benson, the athletic administrator at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, wasn’t an official the night in question. But through an adult lifetime of service, he has become intimately acquainted both with the burn of the spotlight and the evolution of media.

In an early 1990s Class D boys’ final, a small, Eastern Maine public high school defeated a prep school from the West.

Based largely on a hometown newspaper reporter’s description of the volume and distribution of fouls called in the game, a prominent national sports magazine published a brief story about it, rife with implications of bias against the out-of-state players.

That was then. Now, officials don’t have to wait a day or a week to have their calls or motives second-guessed by hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands who weren’t in attendance.

Those triggering the discussion don’t require a press credential, a printing press or a padded seat behind an anchor desk. In a world where everyone from grammar school students to grandmas owns a computer, carries a cell phone equipped with a camera or frequents a social networking site or newsgroup, everybody is a potential critic.

“I’d like to see more emphasis placed on training in dealing with difficult situations,“ football official Rick Olfene said. “We need to teach people how to manage that and how to deal with criticism.”

One problem now is the proliferation of the source.

Criticism — like the video of a monotone, overnight singing star warbling about getting down on Friday or a parrot swearing in five languages — is viral.

February’s great hardwood controversy du jour was Exhibit ‘A.’ Two newspapers and a local station covered the contest. Another man, well known as a teacher and coach in the home school’s district — videotaped and described the game for future broadcast on public access cable.

The next day, with murmuring and second-hand scuttlebutt at fever pitch, the owner of the tape made it public, expressing the honorable intention of giving viewers a chance to make up their own minds.

He emailed the video to the two schools’ local newspapers of record and posted a link on MBR.org, a web outlet that maintains a discussion board popular among local basketball fans.

Within hours, the masses weighed in with 37 comments and hundreds of reads.

“(The referee) had to see it in real time and didn’t have the luxury of a pause button,” reasoned one observer.

“That bump out of bounds had no effect on the play … Was that Tim Donaghy that made that call?” quipped another, referring to the shamed former NBA official who confessed to fixing the outcome of games.

“(You) get officials now and then who want to interject themselves into the game at all costs. Maybe he had somewhere to be. This is classic refs at their worst. As an ex-ref, we were trained to know the situation at all times and in that situation that is a no call … Seriously, they will be using this video in the future to train refs about restraint at end of games,” a third chimed in.

BLOCKING IT OUT

It is an extension of the job that few older officials bargained for, or even imagined, when they started working high school games in the 1970s and ’80s.

Then, the scrutiny began and ended during the one to three hours that they were in charge of the activity between the lines.

Much of officials’ training about conflict was and is confined to harsh words that might emanate from a coach or a paying spectator.

And while there have been horror stories about officials being allegedly assaulted — including one at a local middle school game more than 10 years ago — most games in the tri-county area are played without even the hint of ugliness.

“I’ve been in more gyms in this state than I can probably count, and I’ve had more things yelled at me than I can probably remember, and half of the things that they yell at me I don’t understand,” Benson said. “You can’t worry about crowds. You’ve got to worry about the 10 people on the floor and the two adults you need to manage. That’s why they have administrators to handle the crowd. That’s their responsibility.”

Naturally, the greater the number of people that follow a sport, the more likely is an official to feel the heat.

Basketball and football are far and away Maine’s two largest spectator sports. They’re also among the games most watched on television at the pro and college levels, which leads to almost every fan feeling that he or she has at least a rudimentary grasp of the rules.

Some are eager to verbally express a different interpretation of traveling, player control or illegal procedure than the one being whistled.

“Many people try football for one or two seasons, find out all the expectations and say, ‘This just isn’t for me.’ But for me, there’s a pride that you feel,” Olfene said. “A feeling of accomplishment. One of the first things I learned from an older official who mentored me is, ‘You’re the best trained person out there. Nobody in the stands and nobody at home is better trained than you are.’ ”

AWAY FROM THE GLARE

Other sports are primarily individual, lifelong activities with a participatory following.

Skiing, swimming and track to field fall into that category. Serving at meets is a labor of love. According to Scott Morrison, Edward Little High School swim coach and an official in the sport for more than 20 years, many of the state’s swimming officials donate their nominal fee back to local scholarship programs.

“Most officials were swimmers themselves or are parents of swimmers,” Morrison said.

Lower-profile games such as field hockey or a fashionable sport such as lacrosse — which wasn’t a sanctioned high school sport in Maine until 1998 — attract small crowds with a high percentage of people who never played the game.

Many fans don’t even recognize what the frequent whistles mean. It fosters a more friendly learning environment for an official who either strives to learn the craft and improve, or who would rather not be subjected to other, time-tested forms of scrutiny, such as sexism.

“It took me a couple of years until a lot of the parents and coaches realized I really did know what I was doing, and then I didn’t get any more flak,” said Barbara Snapp, a lacrosse and soccer official from Brunswick. “It takes that kind of exposure of the fans and the athletes to women officials to get to the point where they realize we do a fine job.”

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

Then there’s the ever-present issue of interpretation.

It rears its head in such cases as the basketball example, where there was a bang-bang play at the horn and the officials did not have their pro and college cohorts’ benefit of immediate video replay.

It’s also present in the boys’ and girls’ games of lacrosse or hockey. Spectators may go ballistic about a call without recognizing that there are distinct rule differences between the genders.

“There’s a lot more gray area in girls’ hockey,” said Greg Dumais of Auburn, a former high school, junior and professional hockey official. “You have to decide if that was a check or was it just the girls not being able to stop. Girls’ hockey in the state of Maine has gotten increasingly better over the years, but there is a lot more gray in girls’ hockey.

“Not everybody in officiating is at the same level,” he added. “You have to put people in the right spots so that they can succeed as well as help them learn and develop for the next level.”

Getting that promotion means sticking it out … which means having thicker skin than ever before.

What felt like a no-doubt, in-the-moment decision now can have unprecedented staying power.

“The people who are most effective and successful are those with superior interpersonal skills,” Olfene said.

“The toughest part,“ Benson added, “is keeping (prospective officials) around for the first two or three years. If they can handle being yelled at.”

koakes@sunjournal.com

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