Evaluating Officiating in Black & White

I’ll get to the point:

Sports officiating is one of the most fulfilling activities I’ve ever participated in.  It’s fun, exciting and challenging.  The fun and exciting part is because of my love for sports and the even deeper love I have for the mostly young people who play in the contest.  Outside of men’s league basketball, 99% of the 4 sports I officiate are middle or high school age.  Young people are special in my eyes.  I respect those who participate as well as the coaches who spend time molding them into better people through organized sports.  Facilitating a contest so that the rules and spirit of fair play are enforced is vital to the games.  While there are rules, there is also game administration.  In other words it’s not just about calling violations, it’s also understanding what not to call.  There is a certain feel to the game officials have to understand.  Show me an official who administers 100% by the book, and I’ll show you an official that no coach, player or fan wants.  And this is  the focus of this blog… coaches and fans.  Namely my coaches and fans of African descent.

In officiating, conflict among players and coaches is something that goes with the job.  We expect it.  Where there is competition, there is often intensity as a group of individuals collectively fight for pieces of real estate on the floor or field of play.  Resolving conflict and fostering an environment where communication is open and respectful is one of the responsibilities officials have which have nothing to do with the rules.  It’s a give and take.  When lines are crossed, its up to officials to be the arbiter of what is no longer acceptable.

I’ve noticed over the years that there is a general difference in the kind of flack I get from White folks vs. Black when it comes to youth sports.   Again generally, if a white person doesn’t like my calls, he/she criticizes my performance, my aptitude, my judgement.  They may say something like, “That was a horrible call!  What are you looking at?”  Or one of my favorites, “Hey! There’s a game going on out there.  You may want to try watching it!”  These are par for the course.  Any official worth his whistle won’t take these things to heart unless things go overboard.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some white coaches that I know going into a game are going to be jerks for the sake of being a jerk.  For me, the tone is much more important than the words.

But then there are my brothers and sisters.  African-Americans; Black folk.  When things aren’t going their way, the phrase that far too many of us go to without nuance or consideration is, “YA”LL CHEATING!”

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Listen, to a certain degree, I get it.  Black folk are marginalized in society.  The history and legacy of White supremacy is a prevailing reality that affects most every area of our lives.  When it comes sports, its one of the few areas modern day where we have been able to successfully and compete with the masses consistently.  Many African-American parents see sports as one of their child’s avenues to gain success where there is no subtle or flagrant bias; understanding the bias most black people will face as they get older.  Then there is the passion that just goes along with being a fan.  Fan is short for ‘fanatic.”  Therefore, by definition there is a certain expectation of a lack of logic when it comes to observing athletic competition.  I can be as hyped as anybody yelling at my television when the Lakers or Steelers are on.  Sometimes that includes yelling at the referees.  So again, I get it.  Unfortunately there are those among us who take the ‘cheating,’ accusation (a premise that is often flawed) to a disgraceful level.

I officiated a football game a while back.  The teams consisted of a mostly black populated school vs a majority white populated school.  In my position as back judge,  I threw penalty flags on 3 long touchdown scoring plays back against the mostly white team as a result of ‘holding’.  That team’s White coach wasn’t too happy with me.  He yelled a few things at my direction as football coaches do.  The fans were also disappointed and expressed their displeasure in the forms of “Ohhhh” and “Arrrrrrggghhhhs”  Later on, I called the same type of holding penalty against the mostly black team.  Not only did the fans and assistant go ballistic, the fans started accusing me and our crew of cheating.  I don’t mean ‘cheating’ as hyperbole.  They were actually serious!  All of a sudden every move I made was heavily scrutinized.  When I explained my call to the coach, they mocked and scorned my words to the coach if I were addressing them.  As for the rest of the game, every subsequent penalty against their team was in some way an attempt to take something away from them.  As a matter of fact, even as their team won the game, instead of celebrating the victory of the players, they taunted the officials that we were not able to ‘cheat’ them out of victory.

This isn’t the only time.  I’ve been in basketball games, where it was an all white team playing an all black team; the white teams are winning, and the black coaches and fans are screaming at two black officials accusing of of cheating.  How ridiculous is that?  Often the reality is that the other team is shooting, passing, rebounding, and defending better than the other.  Sometimes the black kids are imitating  Lebron James and Kobe Bryant with their moves, but haven’t put in the work and developed the skill-set to succeed like their hoop heros.  Sometimes it’s as simple as the coaching is suspect.  Regardless of the sport, I can normally tell within the first few minutes how good a team is, whether they are well coached, and their level of potential competitive success in a given situation.  I can say for sure, that the officiating generally has so little to do with an outcome of a game, you’d have to be Tim Donaghy to notice discrepancies.

That being said, there are crappy officials.   I know more than a few who do it just for the money.  I hate working with them.  There are also officials who have biases.  There are even situations where black teams from certain communities have a harder time succeeding in other communities when they compete.  Equally true, is that no player or team has calls that they will always agree with. Officials, like players and coaches make mistakes.  We miss the mark.  Still, the vast majority of us really care about doing a great service to the game and the young people who play them.  We attend training camps, study, test, watch film, critique ourselves and one another every day.  When I am with some of my good friends who are officials we openly discuss our blunders.  We use these our mistakes to help one another better.  We seldom ever talk about ‘that great game’ we called the other night.  That’s the truth!

So to my people, you know who you are, please stop!  We aren’t out here trying to take nothing away from your kid.  Accusing us of cheating, especially within ear shot of the youth who are playing, gives them a false sense of victim-hood that is in no way true, nor will it prepare them to differentiate and navigate the real bias they face now or will face later.  Winning games are about talent, strategy and execution.  In most cases, these decide the outcomes of games even if the officiating is suspect.  The cream always rises to the top.  I don’t give a damn about who wins or loses a game; unless you are the Lakers or the Steelers.  And honestly if I officiate those teams, because I care about my craft so much, I wouldn’t give Kobe or Big Ben a damn thing they didn’t earn. So stop thinking its my job to compensate for your child’s lack of athletic achievement?

By all means continue to critique us on performance if you see fit.  Engaged and KNOWLEDGEABLE fans keep officials on our toes.  In my profession, we are expected to be perfect and we strive for perfection. Unfortunately, most of you don’t understand the rules like you think you do and couldn’t referee yourselves out of a paper bag if it came down to it.   Screaming obscenities and accusing us of cheating makes YOU look bad.  And sometimes YA’LL embarrass me!  I’m throwing a proverbial flag for unsportsmanlike conduct and feeding black youth misinformation.  STOP IT!

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