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Survival of the Fittest

Tell people that you officiate and you may hear, “There’s no way I’d do that,” or “What’s the matter? Don’t you get yelled at enough at home?”There’s no question that it’s a jungle out there.

There is an almost trite saying that goes, “There is no teacher like experience.” When it comes to pulling on the stripes, there is truth in that. In reality, most of what officials call “experience” is another tool in your “Official’s Survival Kit.” Let’s take a look at what should be in there.

Experience. Experience is indeed the best teacher when it comes to being a good official. There is a reason you work those youth and sub-varsity games early in your careers: You regularly see things at lower levels that it might take years to see at the varsity or collegiate levels. Crazy plays with unforeseeable outcomes that stretch your knowledge of the rules give you a bag full of experience that goes beyond clinics or rules meetings. Officials who serve as mentors often cite that as a bonus for working with new officials.The other side of the coin is the experience you gain dealing with coaches and players after a tough or unusual play. Being able to communicate what you saw and what you called is critical. Call it growth or development if you prefer. Whatever term you use, the most important survival tool for the official is experience.

Confidence. Confidence is an outgrowth of experience and is a necessary attribute of upward mobility as an official. The more experience you gain, the more your confidence grows. The more your confidence grows, the better you become at handling tough plays. When you are observed exhibiting those attributes, promotion won’t be far behind.

Imagine a coach watching as an official desperately searches for help from partners after a banger. Whether the call goes for or against his or her team is irrelevant: He or she knows the next call by an insecure official could cost the team.

Rules study goes with experience in building confidence. Working with partners you trust helps, too. Good posture, signals and eye contact along with a strong voice and whistle all exhibit your comfort level in officiating.

Attitude. Some officials show up wishing they were someplace else or feeling they’re working a game beneath their skills. It won’t be long before their attitudes lead to a weak call, blown interpretation or a confrontation.

If you take a game, you owe it to all involved to give it your best effort. The saying, “The game you’re working is the most important game in the world that day to those players,” is true. It should be true for officials as well. Your positive attitude will give everyone a better impression of you.

Next time you’re preparing for a game, after you’ve checked your equipment and uniform, make sure you’ve also packed your experience, confidence and attitude. They are your most important survival skills.

Written by Dave Sabaini, a freelance writer and official who lives in Terre Haute, Ind. This article originally appeared in the 6/05 issue of Referee. 

We Played Football on 9/11

By Tim Sloan

I wasn’t really listening to the DJ.

I had a hundred things on my mind as I pulled into work at my job in Decatur, Ala., that late summer morning. I had been transferred to our sister facility in Illinois the week before and I was pondering the details of what lay ahead. Basically, I had eight weeks to sell a house, find a house, buy a house and move a family to a place four states away.

As I reached to turn off the radio, the DJ’s suddenly serious voice caught my attention. “An airplane has just struck the World Trade Center.”

My first thought was of the plane that had accidentally hit the fog-shrouded Empire State Building years ago and I told myself it must have been an accident. So I turned off the radio, gathered my equipment bag and headed into my office. To go with all my other ulcers, I had a middle school football game that night in Russellville, about 45 minutes away near the Mississippi line.

It was about a five-minute process to get settled in and fire up my computer. By the time Yahoo! came up, the news was now about a second airplane. I walked over to one of the conference rooms and two or three people were already gathered around a TV with that look on their faces. I spent the next few hours watching the world change forever, wondering who the SOBs were that could imagine a stunt like this.

By lunchtime, with professional leagues postponing games, I figured there’d be no way we were going to Russellville either. Just to make sure, however, I called Coach Swindall and asked him what the plan was. Life goes on, he said.

We played football on 9/11.

The other four officials and I drove out along Alabama 24 that afternoon, but it wasn’t the usual pregame conversation. The radio was updating the horrible events, of course, and I remember that we spent the hour talking about investing or something; almost like it was as much wrong to talk football as it would be capitulative to admit horror at what we’d witnessed all day.

The players, in grades seven and eight, surprised me by being so upbeat. Maybe the best thing anybody could have been that day was a 13-year-old anticipating his first football game. During the national anthem, even though I’m Canadian, I always place my hand over my heart and say a little prayer after the first line is sung. It was longer that day.

I wore the white hat for the first game and the kicker nearly whiffed the opening kickoff. One of the receivers’ linemen scooped up the feeble effort and ran it back all the way, untouched, to make it 6-0 after nine seconds. Here we go, I remember thinking. But like everything else that day, it turned out differently. Nobody scored another point in two games.

In an almost surreal way, the event became a celebration. Being at the game meant you didn’t have to be watching TV. But more important was that it was like people realized they were participating in something they had been intended to eschew. Nobody looked sideways at anybody and, after the game, the handshakes player to player and coach to official could have crushed diamonds.

Yeah, a middle school football game set against the backdrop of horrifying history is a little thing. But America is made on the little things. When Perry Swindall wanted to play football that day, my first impulse was to want to wring his heartless neck when I saw him. Several hours later, it was apparent that his heart was actually a size or two bigger than mine. And mine was fixing to grow. Our best hours always rise from our worst. And life goes on

Tim Sloan lives in Bettendorf, Iowa, and referee high school football and basketball. This originally appeared in the 9/06 issue of Referee.  

August Poll Results:

More and more local associations are incorporating the latest technology into their training programs. Which response is MOST indicative of your experience?


NASO members said:

40%  My association uses SOME technology in our training program, periodically employing video, PowerPoints   and/or online resources.

27%  My association uses A LOT of technology in our training program, regularly employing video, PowerPoints and/or online resources.

26%  My association RARELY uses technology in our training program, infrequently employing video, PowerPoints and/or online resources.

7%  My association NEVER uses technology in our training program; we have never used any video, PowerPoints and/or online resources.      

Ready To Pack Your Bags


Most officials know after working only a few games which “must-have” items they need to pack to make sure their game goes as smoothly as possible. More experienced officials, however, may have all sorts of odds and ends both tangible and intangible in their bag of tricks. Those are items that help them prepare for the unexpected and work a level above other officials. Do they know something that you don’t?



Preparation is the key. Some veteran officials go through pregame rituals that border on ceremony. We aren’t talking superstition; we’re talking experience — and plenty of it. The bulk of that pregame ritual takes place at home before they ever leave for the game. Their bags are always packed the same way, and they never seem rushed when they arrive.

Watch an accomplished vet unpack at the game site: You’ll see a clean, creased uniform and shoes that are already polished. Newer officials sometimes cram everything into their bag after the previous game and spend much of their pregame cleaning and polishing shoes, trying to find a whistle or game card, trying to get wrinkles out of their shirts or sticking a wayward patch on their sleeve. All that takes up valuable time that should go to a pregame conference with your partners. Professionalism starts long before you even put the key in the ignition.


Two is better than one. One of my football partners is a treasure. He brings at least two of everything. Three shirts, two pair of knickers, three flags, two coins, three beanbags and the list goes on. Why? He wants his crew to be covered if somebody forgets or loses something, or a piece of equipment gives up the ghost on the field. The veteran officials’ car trunks often look like the mobile warehouse of some referee supplies dealer. But they are covered in case of the unforeseen.



Hitting the books. Our games are always changing. Certainly the rules undergo an annual facelift. The best officials don’t stop their rules study after taking the annual test or attending the rules interpretation meeting. Even though most of us are out of school and never did really like tests, there are creative ways you can stay on top of that part of your game.

In some states, it isn’t uncommon to travel up to two hours to call a high school game. Certainly some of that time is spent catching up with friends and telling jokes, but there is still plenty of time to sharpen your game. Pack your rulebook or other officiating books and quiz your crewmates. Give each official a shot at a question, and then discuss the rule, the interpretation and a game situation in which that has come up. In addition to being an excellent study resource, that often helps you to laugh at something from the past or some imaginary scenario that you concoct.


Thorough game preparation goes far beyond packing your bag. Often, you may have to pack enough for two to be fully prepared. As Grandma used to say: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”




Written by Dave Sabaini, a freelance writer and official who lives in Terre Haute, Ind.This article originally appeared in the 4/05 issue of Referee.




NASO Summit Heading to Minneapolis 2010



The Sports Officiating Summit, presented by NASO, is headed to the upper Midwest in 2010. The Marriott Minneapolis City Center will be the site for the annual gathering of officiating leaders. With the theme “Rights, Requirements, Risks: The Shared Responsibility of Officiating,” the NASO Summit will be held from July 25-27. It is presented by NASO in cooperation with the NFHS and, in 2010, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL). You won’t want to miss it! For more information, contact NASO at 262/632-5448. 

Check out what people are saying about the officiating industry’s biggest event in 2010:


Barry Mano, NASO President: “The theme signifies that the 2010 Summit will bring determined focus on three very important factors in officiating: rights, requirements and risks. Each carries within it obligations and expectations that define the officiating experience. We chose the explanatory line: The Shared Responsibility of Officiating, specifically to set the topics and discussions with a framework that involves not only officials, but also those who administer and use their services. The rights, requirements and risks attendant to officiating are after all, shared responsibilities.”


Dave Stead, MSHSL Executive Director: “Minneapolis is, perhaps, the finest destination city in the upper Midwest. Abundant entertainment, magnificent facilities and spectacular accommodations will welcome every attendee. The staff at the MSHSL, as well as the meeting event staff, are excited about hosting NASO members and we trust that both the professional and leisure time activities will surpass your highest expectations.”


Kevin Merkle, MSHSL Associate Director: “We feel fortunate to have the opportunity to host this prestigious event. In particular, we are excited about the opportunities that such an event will provide for officials in Minnesota and for our officiating leaders. This is a once-in-a-career opportunity and we plan to take full advantage of the Summit sessions and activities.”

Fresh Ice


By John Miskelly


Dec. 10, 2005, I was getting ready for my first game back on ice as an official in more than 15 years. I was nervous all day. To boot I knew I was getting the flu. Every nook and cranny on my body ached, I was running a low-grade fever and my stomach was on the verge of exploding. But I knew I’d have trouble being assigned to any other game if I backed out of this one.


I felt lucky just to be in that position. See, one month earlier I put on my skates, brand new ones, and hit the ice to get ready for the Michigan high school ice hockey season.


My first attempt at breaking in my new skates nearly resulted in a hospital stay. I moved with the grace of a rhinoceros walking on marbles. I couldn’t pivot, skate backward or stop with any confidence. I remember thinking about how my return would be a complete disaster. A hockey referee who can’t skate? Like a NASCAR racer who can’t drive. While waiting for the rest of my uniform and gear to arrive from a supplier in Canada, I plugged away at refining my skating technique.


By the sixth open skating session, following several off-ice training sessions, I was moving better, not gracefully, but better. I knew I was going to be a linesman in that first game, which meant I’d be dropping every puck, but basically only skating between the blue lines. The day of my game was getting nearer, and at least I could skate, but all my new gear was stuck in Canada on a delivery truck — may as well been on a snail’s back. Thanks to a few helpful colleagues, I got what I needed and was ready to go.


Oh yeah, there was still the flu.


At the arena I entered the officials’ room and met my two colleagues for the night (Michigan high school hockey boasts a two-referee, one-linesman system).


After a little chit-chat, I finally said it: “This is my first high school game in more than 15 years.” Remember those cartoon characters whose eyes literally bug out of their sockets? My partners looked like that. I didn’t think I should say I had the flu, too.


 A lot had changed over 15 years — a new system, protocol changes, nearly double the teams playing high school hockey from my previous stint. Just prior to the national anthem, one in which the tape began skipping, they announced my name. That was a bit scary.


 It took just five minutes, not even clock-time five minutes, before I began wiping sweat out of my eyes. Between the flu, the nervousness and more weight than I carried 15 years ago, I was already getting a workout. The first period ended and my partners and I re-entered the officials’ room. “Any thoughts or advice?” I asked.

They were polite and nice about it, but of course, there were some things to say, “Keep up with the play,” and, “Hold your line,” were just a few. I was the “rookie,” which was weird considering I was about the same age as the other two and started the officials’ group in the mid-1980s before either of them. But I needed to be open-minded and easy to get along with.


“Whew,” escaped from my lips as the final buzzer sounded. Then a puck went rocketing toward one of my partners, grazing his left shoulder and careening to the far boards. I saw the perpetrator and reported him. Needless to say he was penalized for letting his emotions get the better of him.


I left that rink that night feeling like I could do maybe 20 games or so during the season (I managed 22), and use the 2005-06 season to springboard me into the future. I was back. And yes, I drove home, crawled into bed and proceeded to have a horrible 48-hour flu, one that saw me lose 10 pounds (an unexpected benefit!). Don’t worry; I didn’t referee again until Dec. 20.


 John Miskelly lives in Royal Oak, Mich., where he has officiated hockey for more than 25 years. This originally appeared in the 7/06 issue of Referee.

June Poll Results 

Which of the following best describes how the economy has affected your officiating?

NASO members said: 

47% - It hasn’t affected my officiating.  Things have remained status quo.

18% - More people are getting into officiating, so I don’t have as many available games. 


14% - I am taking games closer to home to avoid having to pay so much for gas.


12% - It has forced me to work more games to help pay the bills.


9% It has forced my state to cut games, resulting in fewer officiating opportunities.

Pick Up Your Game With a New Sport 


Back to the beginning. Adding a new sport and becoming, for all intents and purposes, a rookie again can help you take your game back to the basics. We reach a comfort level after a number of years officiating the same sports at the same schools. We may fall into routines that are not helpful. For example, if you are working a baseball game with an experienced partner at a school close by, you may anticipate no “surprises,” and have a truncated pregame with your partner — if one at all. Becoming a rookie again will, in essence, force you to have a meaningful pregame. Revisiting that ritual may help you to recall the value in holding such meetings with every partner prior to every game. The results can’t help but help.

By the book. When you’re new at a sport, mechanics seem more important. You tend to avoid shortcuts and laziness. Going through another rookie experience may help you sharpen your mechanics in all sports by pointing out areas where you may have started relaxing. Better mechanics give a better impression. Renewed concentration on mechanics can only help revitalize your game.

Apples and oranges. Related to mechanics is positioning. Different sports require different angles and varying visual acuity. I know football officials who felt their game improved after adding basketball because they became adept at “looking through” players to see action. Watching an 83-mile-per-hour fastball come in may help you get an eye for the volleyball spike.  

Give up the crutch. You’ve probably worked with experienced veterans who practically make the calls before the action is over. The crutch of “experienced anticipation” is not available to the new official. You must wait for the play to end before you can make a call. You slow down to pause, read and react. That is a valuable lesson for every official to recall.

I love this game. Perhaps the most critical lesson to learn from adding a new sport is the recollection of why we decided to do this in the first place: We love it! A renewed interest in the sports we’ve been calling for years will add new life to our efforts and increase the “psychic” pay we take home.The real question is not should you officiate a new sport, but why shouldn’t you?

Written by Dave Sabaini, a freelance writer and official who lives in Terre Haute, Ind.This article originally appeared in the 5/05 issue of Referee.

Ruling Favors Texas Football Officials  

A San Antonio court of appeals in June ruled in favor of high school officials Charles Harpole, Jim Carroll, Alan Kwast, Albert Lopez and Brock Pittman that they were not liable in carrying out their duties on the football field during a game in 2004. The crew has been in and out of court with Midwest Employers Casualty Company, which had been seeking damages for Brackenridge High School Coach Terry English as part of a $10 million lawsuit that was filed in 2006. English suffered a Grade 3 traumatic brain injury during a sideline collision with Harpole at a 2004 game, leaving English with impaired memory and forcing him to retire from teaching and coaching. Harpole sustained a concussion, but was not seriously injured and returned to officiating.

Midwest, in an effort to recoup expenses that it has paid and continues to pay English, was twice denied summary judgment against the officiating crew by a trial court. Midwest then went to a San Antonio appellate court earlier this year, but the court ruled in favor of the officials. Midwest still has the option to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

An amicus brief, filed by NASO on behalf of the football officiating crew in Texas, played a role in supporting the officials involved in the case. Below are some comments about the brief from those involved and interested in the case.

“We at NASO feel the matter at stake is of significance to all officials, football and all other sports. We feel it is vital to prevail upon the appeals court on the basis presented in this amicus.” — NASO President Barry Mano

The amicus provided multiple benefits. On the one hand, it bolstered the legal arguments and provided additional support for the court to make the ruling the way it did. The amicus can argue public policy issues and sort of provide a broader public view to the court than the parties that actually have a dog in the fight. It is beneficial for the court to have the additional analysis that the amicus provided.” — Attorney Gary Schumann, who helped to represent the officials.

“You never really know how (the courts) come to their decision or what motivates them, but it is clear to me that this (the amicus) was a good decision.” — Attorney Alan Goldberger, who drafted the amicus on behalf of NASO.

“I am proud to be a member of NASO, which will stand up for officials at all levels. What happened to Charles Harpole could happen to any of us while we are on the field or court.” — William Miller, sports official from Wichita Falls, Texas.


I Turned into One of Them


By David Knopf

It was a three-on-three soccer tournament, a “national tour stop” leading to the promised land — the finals in sunny Orlando, Fla.

I’d refereed for years, but was now coaching eight-year-olds, one of whom was my son. Our team was strong and could make the tournament finals. That singular goal, though, prompted a 57-year-old coach to act like a fool.

It was hot, and the parents had brought tents, cold drinks and snacks to keep the kids primed for several games in one day.

Before our game, I spotted a friend’s son on the field next to ours. The 13-year-old referee was crying after being yelled at by an adult coach. I don’t know what the coach said, but I was told he’d been on the boy throughout the first half and tournament officials were now reading the coach the riot act.

The damage had been done.

I took the boy aside and told him the coach was a bully. “Call your game,” I said, “and ignore him. You’re doing a great job.” He wasn’t the first young ref I’d seen in tears because an adult failed to act his age.

Much to his credit, he gathered his courage and finished the game. Feeling good about comforting and advising him, I turned to prepare my team for its own game.

It was the tournament semifinal, and a win meant we would qualify for the final and a possible trip to regionals. Our referee was tall and said little. I guessed he was in his early 20s and should’ve known better than to call the game from the halfway line, even if he was working along on a small field.

“This is for a final and these teams are busting their butts,” I yelled. “Work as hard as they are.”

I was hot.

The ref missed a call, then another. All, I thought, because he wasn’t hustling, wasn’t getting in position to see what was happening.

I was right, of course, but — as I learned later — I was also wrong.

Just as the heat of the day affected him, the heat of the moment got to me. I peppered and peppered him with comments until he told me to be quiet. He spoke calmly and didn’t show me a yellow card.

Certainly, I’d earned one. He demonstrated more restraint than I had.

My team lost what turned out to be a close, exciting game, and after the ritual handshakes, I signed the scorecard and unloaded a final volley of criticism.

It was only later that I learned what a fool I’d been.

“Do you believe that referee?” I asked my wife and daughter. “You’d expect more someone his age.”

The referee I thought was 21 or 22 was, my family said, actually 15 or 16. He just looked older.

I didn’t believe them, just as others couldn't believe Freddy Adu was actually 14 when his Major League Soccer cameo began. He, too, looked older.

There was no excuse. As a coach, I’d always preached that players should adjust to referees and play through their shortcomings. I wasn’t one to find a scapegoat.

As it turned out, I hadn’t taken my own sermons to heart.

The next day, I went up to the referee and apologized.

“I was out of line yesterday,” I said, shaking his hand. “I shouldn’t have said what I said.”

The tall boy stood quietly and listened.

As with my friend’s young son, my good judgment arrived after the damage had been done. It might’ve been true that our referee failed to hustle. But as an adult, I’d failed an even bigger test — not being mature enough to find a more appropriate way to vent my frustration.

David Knopf refereed high school and youth soccer, high school and college basketball and umpire college baseball. This originally appeared in the 8/06 issue of Referee.


July Poll Results 

Which of the following is the most important attribute for an official to have?

NASO members said:

38% Quality decision-making skills

34% Good people-management skills

18% Solid rules knowledge

7% Solid mechanics knowledge

3% High Level of fitness  


How to Build Good Sportsmanship

By Rick Woelfel

Recently I found myself working some Little League tournament games for the first time in many years. At that level the emphasis is, in theory at least, on sportsmanship and just plain having fun. I enjoyed the experience and so did my crewmates, many of whom, like myself, work other levels.Sad to say, that sportsmanship emphasis doesn’t always exist at higher levels. But officials can encourage sporting behavior, and that means more than our local association handing out a sportsmanship award. It means building a sportsmanlike atmosphere one building block at a time.

Build on what you’re given. Often officials can sense the atmosphere around a contest before it begins. If your crew walks on the field and sees the two coaches glaring at each other from 40 paces, you might get the idea that the players will be on edge too. Prepare for that. Politely but firmly remind players that unsporting acts won’t be tolerated. If, on the other hand, the two coaches are chatting casually, it’s often (though not always) true that the athletes will be at ease as well. Mutual respect goes a long way. Use it to build a smooth game.

Recognize sportsmanlike acts. If a catcher retrieves a foul ball, thank him. If a player helps an opponent up after a tackle, acknowledge it. If an attacker pulls up to avoid charging into a keeper, let her know she made a good play. It’s called positive reinforcement and it works.

Talk them through it. Athletes can get caught up in the emotion of the moment. Sometimes the best way to calm them down is to appeal to their pride as athletes. If players are jawing, say something like, ‘‘You’re too good to be talking like that, don’t you think?” Often they’ll agree and go back to playing.

Don’t talk down to athletes. Sometimes athletes’ complaints are real, sometimes they aren’t. But your game will go much easier if you “hear them out” rather than brush them off. A player who asks a respectful question, whatever the level, deserves a courteous answer. Sometimes all players  — particularly teenagers — want is to have their concern taken seriously.

Someone’s watching you. It’s no secret that officials are under constant scrutiny, but remember who is watching you. Athletes, particularly younger ones, see officials as authority figures. When you’re around the gamesite, conduct yourself properly. Don’t use profanity; even the most casual remark can be taken out of context. Don’t use tobacco on school property. Don’t drink alcohol. And even if you stop at a restaurant after the game, be careful what you say and do. You never know who’s in the next booth.

Rick Woelfel is a freelance writer and baseball umpire based in Philadelphia.This article originally appeared in the 3/05 issue of Referee.



Everybody's Got a Story ... Share Yours


We all have them — those stories about a game or an incident that we’ve told so many times that our local officiating buddies probably can tell them better than we do. Your officiating recollections need a wider audience — a national audience!

Referee is accepting submissions for stories that will appear in the “Last Call.” That section of the magazine is where officials from any sport, any level of competition, tell their personal officiating stories. Maybe your story is funny, maybe it brings a tear to your eye, maybe it’s just one of those everyday experiences we all go through at some point in our careers. Whatever it is, the only requirements are that it must be something that happened to you, and it must in some way reflect any part of the officiating experience.

Send your stories or questions to “Last Call” in care of Matt Moore, Referee associate editor at
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. What are you waiting for? Get typing!


How Do You Take Advantage of Your NASO Membership?

Part of NASO’s mission statement is to serve members by providing benefits and services. Those benefits include insurance, the Member Information and Consultation Program (MICP), Referee magazine, It’s Official, the LockerRoom e-newsletter, annual sport quizzes, discounts to the Summit and educational materials, the Marriot VIP card, relocation referral services and more. Which NASO benefit(s) have you used and what have you gained from the benefit(s)? NASO wants to hear from you. In the space provided, please share your experience with NASO insurance, MICP, Referee magazine, the Marriot VIP card or any other benefits.


 May Poll Results:

Who should pay for required background checks for officials?

NASO members said:

32% The state government should offer free screenings.
29%The state associations.
20%The school districts.
15%The officials.
4%The officials associations.

News Flash

*NW General Membership Meeting - TBD 2020

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