We live in a critical society. Social media is mostly to blame for that, along with twenty-four-hour “news” networks and talk radio. Everyone has a voice whether they have anything worth saying or not. If you have a bad experience at a restaurant, Tweet about it. If your hotel bed isn’t as comfortable as you think it should be, grab your phone and give it two stars on Google. I don’t exempt myself from taking part in the reactionary culture in which we find ourselves. I’ve seen something or experienced something and immediately responded on Facebook or Twitter only to find nobody really cared to hear it in the first place. The more I think about it, the more I realize that we don’t necessarily want our voices to be heard but the freedom to opine on anything and everything. Along with that freedom, however, a culture has been constructed in which we criticize and judge without having to process what our experience actually was.
Politics and sports are two arenas where snap judgments and misinformation abound. We have removed the context from any argument or opinion we have and have replaced it with impulsive responses void of substance. A few months ago I criticized Carolina Panthers’ quarterback, Cam Newton, of not being an accurate passer. I did this from my couch in my living room, and the reality is that if I ever tried to make a five-step drop with a 300-pound defensive lineman rushing me, I would probably hurl the ball into the ground to avoid getting killed. But that truth didn’t stop me from criticizing a professional athlete who gets paid millions of dollars to do something that less than one percent of the human race could do successfully.
Not only are players criticized, but coaches are, too. Every Monday during the football season there undoubtedly will be analysts on television and the radio who will say that a coach should’ve done “a” instead of “b” or played this player instead of that player. Most of the time these analysts will miss the context of certain plays that they are criticizing because they will leave out everything during the game that led up to that particular play. Context is everything. Without context all we have are misinformed opinions.
Recently, since players and coaches weren’t enough, officials in sports have come under fire for “missing” certain calls during a game. Instant replay and a myriad of camera angles capture everything that happens during a game and then slows it down to a speed that in no way reflects the speed at which that play was called by the official. Fans see the replay on television and immediately begin to criticize the official that “missed” the play.
During my time coaching and playing basketball, I thought officials “missed” calls all the time—and I would let them know about it in not-so-subtle ways. I was not a good sport to say the least. I have been ejected from games as a coach and a player. I have received more technical fouls than years I’ve been alive (I’m thirty-six years old), and, to put it simply, I was a jerk about officiating because I was ignorant about officiating.
Five years ago I decided to give up coaching, and I needed something to supplement my income, so I began officiating basketball and umpiring baseball. My first time on a basketball court as an official was during a scrimmage at Trinity Christian Academy. I was with two other veteran officials, and the only thing they kept telling me was to raise my arm every time I blew my whistle. That was the only thing I needed to worry about that night: blow the whistle, raise the arm. Trust me, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Since that night I’ve learned a lot about the mechanics of high school officiating. I’ve learned to “slow down” when I make a call and to be strong in my delivery when reporting a foul to the table. I’ve learned when to rotate on the baseline or when to “hold my whistle” and “see the play all the way through until the end.” I learn new rules every year and sometimes find out that I had misinterpreted one or two along the way. But for all the rules and mechanics and situations I’ve learned, officiating has taught me so much more than what I can find in a rule book.
Once or twice a week from the middle of November to the beginning of March, I hit the road with two other officials to travel to a local high school in West Tennessee. We spend anywhere from twenty minutes to over an hour on the way to the game and the same amount of time on the way home. These are men and women that I would probably never encounter if it weren’t for officiating. A few of them have become close friends over the last five years. They ask about my daughter or how my trips to Texas have been. I know about their families, too. We talk about games we’ve had during the season or the teams we’ll be officiating that night. We communicate with our words. We make an investment.
Once we arrive at the school, we talk over what we need to look for in the game that night and then we make our way to the court. Even as an official, there’s still a rush when you’re standing on the court in front of a crowd getting ready to toss the ball in the air. After the opening tip, the race is on! Basketball distinguishes itself from the other major sports because the action is so fast-paced. The movement on the court is paramount. You have a split second to react to a play, make the call, then signal the call. The entire process can be daunting until you’ve done it enough times for it to become second nature. There is also comfort in knowing that you’re not the only official on the floor.
Communication is key to having a good game with your partners. There is constant eye contact between the three officials on the floor. During timeouts or in between quarters officials may huddle together to discuss a play or what the next few possessions might bring. The best games to call as an official are the ones where you implicitly trust your two partners. Just like players have a flow to a game, so do officials.
West Tennessee is home to some of the best basketball in the state. A few weeks ago I was in Middle Tennessee officiating a region tournament game, and after the game a fan asked where I was from. When I told him West Tennessee, he immediately commented on how great the basketball was in our part of the state. Season after season, a team from our area will end up in the state tournament and even have a good chance to win it. Also season after season, when I walk into a gym on a Friday night in a small town around Jackson, there are faces of people I recognize—people who are there, rain or shine, to support their hometown team. I have a bond with those people, too, simply because they are familiar.
There are many other officials with far more experience than I have who would do more justice to the fundamentals of officiating than I have. But as a young official, the things that mean the most to me are the things that happen on the court that don’t have anything to do with the rule book. What officiating has taught me is to have patience—to see everything within its context. It’s taught me to be singularly focused on the events that are occurring around me at any given time. It has humbled me in a way that nothing else has. There are times when I may make a call, and the second after my whistle blows I know I’ve missed it. I know that as I jog to the scorer’s table, an angry coach will be waiting on me. I know that I will deserve whatever it is that he or she has to say to me (as long as he or she doesn’t disrespect me or use profanity). Officiating has taught me to admit my mistakes and learn from them. It also taught me that there’s a line for everything. As disrespectful as I was as a coach, I have learned exactly where the line is for a coach regarding a call they might disagree with. I’ve also learned that there are ways to diffuse a situation that don’t involve issuing a technical foul.
In the end, players, coaches, and officials are out there on the same court because they love the game. The game of basketball is beautiful. In my opinion, it’s the most graceful sport there is. Along with that grace, though, there is raw brutality, strength, and explosiveness. My job as a referee is to call a game as justly and fairly as I can according to the rules that are set in the place. There’s a common saying in the pre-game meeting with team captains that goes like this: “If you don’t miss a shot, we won’t miss a call.” Everyone involved in that conversation knows shots and calls will be missed, but neither will be missed on purpose. We’re all flawed humans trying to perfect a game that we will never be able to perfect.
I was never in a fraternity in college. I thought about it, and a lot of my friends were in one, but it didn’t fit who I was. I had never experienced anything like a fraternity until I began officiating basketball. There is a bond that is built on the road. There is a skin that thickens throughout a season of bearing the brunt of fans’ frustrations. No matter what call you make as a referee, half of the crowd won’t like it. Officials enter the court together and they leave the court together. And hopefully the bond and the trust between those officials is stronger than it was before. I referee because I love basketball, but I also referee because I’ve grown to appreciate the bond that has developed with my fellow officials, as well as the fondness and pride that I have for basketball in West Tennessee.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.
Header image by Earnest Mitchell.