As if I didn’t have enough to do or enough variety in my life, this past fall I became a basketball referee. I joined the association that officiates high school and middle school girl’s games for a four county region.
At the first meeting I attended, I was given a whistle (a real whistle, I was informed, not one of those cheap things with a pea that gets wet and sticks) and a very specific list of clothing expectations. Shoes, black, all black. If they happen to have a logo or something of another color, cover it with black marker ink. Black crew socks. Black ref pants, generally the polyester, elastic-waist, pleated-front gems you get at an athletic specialty store (and absolutely nothing like pants I would choose to wear). An official shirt that is obtained from the association, gray with black accents and an official official’s patch. And, optionally, a jacket. But if all referees at a specific game do not have official jackets, no one wears a jacket.
Within a few weeks, I had the uniform, had attended some training sessions and practice games, been given passwords into the web-based assigning system, read the rule books, taken and passed the online tests. I was officially a member of the association and had a schedule of assigned games. Officially, I was an official.
Then the games began. I had the uniform and looked like a referee, unless you could see the fear in my face, the hesitation in my calls, or catch the crack in my voice when I (rarely) made a call. I was quickly learning that being a referee was more than passing a test, knowing a game or wearing a uniform. I had entered a new world that brought old truths to the surface.
Looks, knowledge and actions are never enough. With refereeing, as with most, if not all of life, there is a deeper reality.
I began by reffing middle school games for rural county schools. These games were refereed with two person teams and we’d oversee two games back to back. The kids were young and skills levels varied greatly. A few games in, I heard what must have been a parent loudly swear from the stands at a call (I’m sure it was one my partner had made). A few coaches operated in attack mode, but most were friendly, at least before the game.
It was a tough beginning. I knew I was in over my head right away. I worked with a variety of people. Most were patient and helpful. I was not enjoying the pressure, but the people I was working with made me think this was normal for the first year and that over time I’d get the proverbial hang of it. I tried to convince myself they were right.
Then I was assigned a high school “C” game. Entry level, I thought it should be easy. It was late afternoon in a near empty gym. The game began and I understood the reality of exponential change. The girls were bigger, faster and better skilled. The coaches were intense, every minute. I spent most of the game checking the clock and praying for time to speed up.
I rarely blew my whistle. It may have been because I knew blowing the whistle would prolong the game and I wanted it over. I also doubted my perception of who fouled whom, which specific foul type might have been committed and whether it significant enough to warrant a call.
When the game was over, the other referee wanted to debrief and encouraged me to stay for the higher level games to learn from the more experienced refs. I mumbled something about commitments and got out of there. Reality was I had little clear memory of the game’s action and I wanted out of that building.
Early the next morning, I made a quick stop at the local market, where I came face to face with the losing coach from the night before. We said quick, polite hellos (it was the Christmas season, after all) and kept moving in opposite directions. After another game, however, a coach cornered me and reamed me for letting his “girl get killed on that play.” Fortunately I had no clue which girl or which play he was talking about. Ignorance was truly bliss.
I’ve now reffed about fifteen games. I have had unnumbered self-talk conversations and a few actual ones with family and friends. I’m a process person. I do not like being the center of attention, and I want to collaborate with others, not dictate. I am almost certain I am not the right personality type to be a referee. I’ve tried twice to convince the association coordinator that I am a lost cause and lived with daily terror that I will receive an e-mail with my next set of games. He has talked me off of the cliff both times.
While there may be nothing new to what I am learning in this process, much has surfaced that is certainly worth relearning.
I am not a referee because I wear the uniform. I am not a referee because I know the rules and have passed the test. I am not a referee because I have been assigned games. I am not a referee, a real referee, because I put the uniform on, showed up at a game and went through the motions.
I marvel at the commitment people make to this work. People have goals of playoffs, state tournaments, upper level college games and the pros. I am hoping to help some kids enjoy the game, get a bit of exercise and make a few bucks.
I go to monthly association meetings. I am beginning to sense of who lives by the book and who goes with the flow. I know who I’d like to work with and who I will avoid if possible. And I’m beginning to see that if I have a future as a referee it will be a matter of becoming a referee. It must go far beyond clothes and rules, personality and presence. It must become a becoming, arriving at a place where it “fits,” where it is who I am, not what I am doing.
Like so many other life experiences, there is a big difference between looking the part, acting the part and living in the reality. The uniform, rules and gimmicks may give me the opportunity and space to work out growing into being a referee, but if the process is to find its way to fulfillment, I will need to live into the difference between looking like a ref and being a ref. And maybe then I’ll be a little more comfortable in the uniform.