About 25 years ago, there was this guy at a youth basketball tournament in Clovis, repeatedly yelling at the game officials, commonly known as referees.
“Traveling … three seconds … foul,” he screamed.
It was embarrassing. His poor family. After the game, he took a good look in the mirror.
“Put up or shut up,” he thought.
And I did. Yes, that was me.
Soon after, I started officiating basketball to see if I could cut it. That included meetings in Albuquerque and doing middle school games to start.
Near the end of my very first contest, I made a controversial call and a half dozen 12 and 13 year olds and a coach stormed the floor in protest. I survived, but I thought long and hard about ending my officiating career right there.
I didn’t. Eventually, high school games came my way. It was difficult, but I got to where I was almost average. Three cheers for mediocre!
This comes up now because after returning to covering sports for VCNB, it’s easy to see not much has changed. In Valencia County and elsewhere, a vocal, small minority of fans and coaches are disrespectful to officials and, in some cases, abusive.
To be clear, most fans just cheer for their teams. However, because of the occasional torment the number of referees has drastically decreased over the years. Go to a game in any sport and you may see and hear why. The lack of officials has forced games to be rescheduled or cancelled altogether.
The most difficult aspect for me as an official was how some coaches behaved. Yes, they should be passionate, but aren’t they first and foremost educators? As we have been told, the gym is an extension of the classroom.
Despite it all, I loved it. There was the physical workout and the camaraderie with your partners. Having a clean game was a victory, a really good call was a rush.
There were relationships developed with coaches, administrators and athletes. Ironically, communicating with coaches and players was not a strong suit for me, but if I return to wearing stripes it will be an emphasis. I also need to grow a thicker skin, be more patient.
About five years ago, I put the whistle away because of a challenging work schedule and a nagging injury. But the itch to return burns. Even now, when watching a game, my focus is often on the officials. Yes, I can be critical, but I keep it to myself (or my family.) Besides, I missed plenty of calls myself.
If the striped shirt comes out of mothballs, I’ll join an increasingly older group of officials. The game needs new blood, a shot of adrenaline, to improve the quality of officiating. Young men and, especially, women would be a huge boost.
To that end, Zac Stevenson, the director of officiating for the New Mexico Activities Association, says Western New Mexico University and several high schools offer officiating courses.
Stevenson points out the pay has improved. At $70 a game for a varsity football or basketball contest, it’s decent beer money, or cash for Ben-Gay. Work three or four games a week and, well, you do the math.
Stevenson says the NMAA is working to educate coaches and administrators to be more supportive of officials, with coaches going through training sessions. Policing fan behavior is also a priority.
“You don’t go to a concert and scream at the conductor or the first trumpet,” Stevenson said.
The NMAA is also looking to improve the experience crews have at facilities — from changing rooms to security to complimentary food.
The Albuquerque Basketball Officials (ABO) group oversees referees in Valencia County. However, the local pool meets in Los Lunas, eliminating the drive to the Duke City.
After blowing the whistle in three states, the best training was in New Mexico. ABO mentors pass on their knowledge and love of the game.
Getting in shape. A little extra cash. Building relationships. Community service. Plenty of positives. So, is it time for you to look in the mirror?
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.