Someone once asked me:
When I first started officiating football games in the early 1990’s, I was once asked by a player, “do you like to officiate?” I took the opportunity to have a short conversation with the athlete who asked this question. I started out by saying that I enjoyed officiating because it made me feel like I was a part of the game even though, officials would like to remain invisible during the game. I then went on to explain that I was officiating mainly because I wanted to be a witness to the game and to help others see the many facets of the game of American football. American football in my mind is akin to many things in culture and relates to history very well. I talked to this athlete about how players at the highest levels have worked hard, displaying discipline and a work ethic that rivals very few. I also mentioned that the moves and play making abilities of many of the skill position players on the field reminds me of professionals in other arenas such as ballet. When I mentioned ballet to the athlete, he stared at me with a weird smile on his face and I knew right then that he was lost in my comparison. “Think of this”, I said. “When a forward pass is thrown in football and the pass seems to be too high for any “normal” human being to have a chance to catch it, the grace with which a football player is able to leap and haul in the pass seems to me to contain the grace of a ballerina as she leaps from her toes into the air with her arms outstretched as if attempting to grab an overthrown pass!” I could see the athlete start to relate the 2 in his mind and he said to me, “I get it now.”
That understanding builds trust:
Over the years, I have had many conversations with athletes, coaches and other officials while I was on the field and during each conversation, I tried to embrace the teaching and learning moments. Those moments came mostly from short 30 – 60 second conversations which eventually built a trust and mutual respect with those with whom I was conversing. I learned that short conversations on the field of play could help me to understand an athlete, coach or another official and it provided an opportunity to bond with them during the game on something that was meaningful to both of us. Officiating to me goes beyond understanding the rules, it needs to embrace the true meaning of competition and respect. Engaging in conversation on the field, built that camaraderie and understanding that everyone on the field of play has a job to do and understands what the job is of the players, officials and coaches.
The conversations that matter and keep the game moving:
Being in the middle of the defense as an official, gives me the advantage of having the most preventative conversations with the players. Early on in a game, I try to walk up to players who are on the fringe of having a penalty called on them and let them know what I am seeing them do. I would say that walking up to a single player after a play has ended and saying to them that I am seeing them grabbing another play in an illegal manner usually ends the behavior and for that, I am grateful. More penalties means the game moves more slowly. In case you have not been to a sporting event where there are a lot of penalties, it usually means that the crowd starts to get impatient with the officials and the flow of the game slows to the pace of a snail’s crawl. The more short conversations that I can have during the 30 seconds between plays lets the players, coaches and other officials know that I have my eyes on the game and that I am doing my best to keep the game moving along. During one game, there was a play where a pass was thrown to the right side of the field and there were 2 players, 1 from each team closer to the left side of the field that were grappling with each other as the play was taking place. The contact between these players reminded me of a scene from the movies where 2 fighters are shoving and grabbing each other in an attempt to throw the opponent to the ground. This type of intense combat also took me back to the days when my sons were competing in Judo, as these 2 athletes were really going at it. I had my eyes on this confrontation and I turned toward the action where the play was taking place to make sure that the play ended without incident and that the other officials had things covered and then, I immediately turned my attention to the grappling opponents. “Gentlemen”, I started with. “Play the game hard and play it fair and when you hear that whistle, stop!” The players were in each other’s space and were staring at each other. I stepped in and said only 2 words, “I’m watching!” The 2 players tapped each other on the shoulder pads and walked to their respective huddles. When the players broke from their huddles I heard the defensive player say to me “it’s all good ref, thanks!” From that point forward there was not another incident involving those 2 players. It would have been easy for me to throw a flag on both of those players for unsportsmanlike conduct and some officials may have. Here was my thinking, if I throw a flag on them in this game, it meant that if either one of them received another unsportsmanlike conduct foul during that game by rule, they would have been ejected from the game. Neither player threw a punch or slammed their opponent to the ground. Finally, I felt like an understanding from the players that I was involved in the game and had my eyes open would lead them to police themselves and I was right, in this situation. Lessons like this can be transferred into nearly all facets of life. Knowing the situation, having the confidence to speak up and understanding what the outcome could be if no action is taken are 3 things that I try to remember when I walk into a conference room at work or onto a field of play.