With games delayed due to COVID-19, we switched up how we determined Ref of the Month for April. To decide our winners, we held a writing contest. First place wins $100, second wins $50, third wins $25 and fourth wins $15. We received many great entries, but there could only be 4 winners. After much debate, we selected the following:
1st Place – Integrity is Integral by Justin Robinson
2nd Place – Why do I officiate? by Frank Felicelli
3rd Place – Untitled by Will Siegel
4th Place – Competition at its Worst by Benji Gold
Read their submissions below along with commentary from our CEO, Brendan Szulik, about why each entry was selected.
Integrity is Integral by Justin Robinson
Thump! Thump! Thump!
As the pounding of feet echo throughout the gym you turn to lock eyes with a coach who looks like you just spray painted graffiti on their car and stole their family dog.
“You are horrible!” The still enraged voice booms through every corner of the gym.
Do I make a spiteful comment and roll my eyes or just turn my attention where it should be without saying a word?
“Hey, I’m just calling to say I thought you and I called a great game last night, but our partner made us look awful a few times. I was talking to some of the other officials and let’s just say no one is looking forward to calling with him either.”
Do I jump on the bandwagon and spread the negativity that has already started to permeate or take a stand for someone who doesn’t have the opportunity to stand up for themselves?
“Mr. Official, you umpired my daughter’s game last night and did a great job, but your partner made some terrible calls. What was she thinking when she called our girl out at second base? That cost us the game! What did you think of that call?”
Should I feed into my ego and agree with this stranger or support my colleague?
As officials, these scenarios are all too familiar to us. Who doesn’t ever struggle with that desire to confront an angry coach challenging you or to boost yourself up by putting another official down? We are flawed humans. That fact can be witnessed by attending any sporting event on the planet. Parents and coaches that are fantastic role models will lose their values because of a flag that didn’t benefit their one-sighted view of a game. Players will see this behavior from the adults that they admire and show disrespect after committing an obvious violation. Our world’s most cherished athletes will not hesitate to berate an official even though millions of youthful eyes are fixed on their every move. So what do we as officials do? How do we combat such reckless corruption of human decency?
That answer can be summarized in one word. It is a word that if every person involved in a sporting event maintained; sports would be transformed into something that will always unite instead of divide. It is something we as officials must value above all else. That word is integrity.
How simple an idea. Doing what is right and just. If only it were that simple.
The thought of fans collectively accepting a call that we made that cost their team the game would be a beautiful thing, but not likely to happen in our careers.
Do we have the power to control every person’s response to a play or call? Of course not. Although we may not be able to control the narrative we can certainly influence it.
Officials above all else must maintain integrity. Although our integrity is likely to go unnoticed and is certainly underappreciated, we have no other choice. In sports, as in life, you can choose to either build up or tear down. We have the power to make that choice. We can tell a coach to “not quit their day job” or we could find a reason to thank them for being a positive steward of the game. We could puff out our chest at an irate fan or we could smile and turn the other cheek.
Examples of integrity are why we adore sports. When the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers became the first ever 16th seed to conquer a 1 seed in the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, Virginia Cavalier coach Tony Bennett had a choice to make. He could place blame or he could have integrity. He chose the latter.
Coach Bennett’s response to being on the negative side of history: “So, that’s life. We talk about it all the time. The adulation, the praise, it comes and we got a lot of that this year. Then on the other side, they’ll be blame and people pointing that out. That can’t, in the end, you know, define these guys and our team or us, because it was a remarkable season but we got thoroughly outplayed.”
What happened the following year is the stuff that Disney couldn’t even dream up. Don’t think for a moment that the Cavalier coach didn’t inspire an attitude throughout his program that impacted the following season’s national championship. And all of that because a man chose to have integrity. With the eyes of a nation awaiting a coach Bennett to falter and succumb to self-pity and blame, he demonstrated an unwavering character. We as officials must always do the same.
From the moment we dedicate ourselves to the commitment of serving athletes playing the sports that we love, we accept a responsibility to uphold the beauty and power of sports. It also comes with an understanding that we will give far more than we take. In giving our time and talents to a great passion we will sacrifice much, but never our integrity.
If we want to be something more than blowing a whistle, throwing a flag or calling a strike we must take ownership of our role as role models. Not just for the young athletes and the adults that influence them, but for our peers.
A nationwide sports crisis is unraveling in front of our eyes. A shortage of officials paints a gloomy picture of the future of interscholastic sports in America. As the number of participants in most sports continues to grow, the number of officials is decreasing at an alarming rate.
So how do we as officials combat this crisis? Look no further than what we see in the mirror. We have the power to create a future of officiating that is ripe with determined individuals that have the ambition that will fuel the sports landscape.
What passionate, dedicated person that grasps the power of sport would not want to be part of a fraternity of people that will support you in the face of criticism and adversity? That will have your back knowing that you have theirs. That possess the strength to have integrity because they know the person in the stripes to their right upholds the same values.
Being part of this collective group of like-minded individuals with a common goal can have a huge impact in the sporting world. Having this unflappable attitude will not only carry us on the field, court or mat, but it will provide us with a life full of joy and influence.
Sports have taken something from every one of us that have ever picked up a ball or whistle, stick or flag; but it has given us much more. It is long past time we give back without the thought of anything in return. We will likely find more than we ever hoped for.
Thoughts from our CEO:
Right out of the gate – “Thump! Thump! Thump!” – Justin has you hooked. Throughout his piece, he seamlessly blends lyricism with analysis, rhetoric with commentary. He draws you in further with his musings on moral partnership and the officiating community. He argues that Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers, following their first-round fall in the first round of March Madness, won the subsequent NCAA championship because of the integrity and accountability they showed after their initial defeat. His conclusion is an interesting and far-reaching one as well: it’s integrity that’s killing sports participation and sportsmanship. Rather than blame parents or coaches or even his fellow officials, he discusses instead the ways that we as a culture must adapt in order to enjoy the games we love.
I was once taught that a piece of art, be it written or painted or drawn, is defined by its ability to cause the viewer to emote. Art strikes a chord in us. If you agree with this criterion, then Justin’s piece is an exemplary work of art that this sports executive thinks the entire industry should read.
Why do I officiate? by Frank Felicelli
The title of my submission has always been in the back of my mind. In a few words, it’s because I love it. That said, to borrow a line from Socrates: an unexamined life is not worth living. And what he meant by that was for people to reflect on everything they do in life. In regards to officiating, in order to become a good official, regardless of the sport, one has to reflect after each and every contest. I may have (hope I have?) officiated a handful of “perfect games” throughout my career of 30+ years, but most of the time I have fallen short. Reflection has always been my personal inspiration to do better the next time. To have a “flawless game”, if you will. Yes, it’s aspirational but it is what drives me to work toward the next “perfect game” even if I fall short of that ideal. That strive to be perfect while at the same time being right in the middle of the action is why I love it.
Over the years, I officiated basketball, football, some baseball/softball, and volleyball. For me the rush of officiating basketball has always excited me. One has to be “on” the minute they take the court since the environment of a gymnasium lends itself to intense scrutiny since the fans are so close to the action. And fans and coaches can be an unforgiving lot so many times regardless if the game is a nail biter or a blow out. Basketball, more than other sports I think, really requires judgment that goes beyond calling fouls or violations. How does one handle an overexuberant coach or players who get frustrated to the point of taking it out on the official? How does one respond (or not) to unruly fans , or merely loud-mouthed ones, who find entertainment in yelling at the refs? How does one handle a coach who has a question about a rule when the real motivation is for him/her to tell you how bad you missed that last call? For me, going through a few trial by fire tests of my judgment has made me a better classroom teacher, friend, father and spouse even. An official has to remain above it all even when the game is falling apart. But it is what drives me. To be my best, as corny as that may sound on the surface.
If I could offer advice to any official it would be to take on an air of approachability. Smile. Look like you are enjoying your job. Hustle, always. Never be in a position where you missed the call because you failed to hustle or anticipate how a play might unfold. And again, maintain body language that looks like “you got this” (even if you might be losing it!). And if you’re only in it for the money or to satisfy some Napoleon-like deficiency in your character you will never love officiating… and it will surely show. And you will eventually quit or get run out of town, so to speak.
And finally, since we are generally paid for what we do, give the customer their money’s worth. Work hard to turn in that “perfect game” even if you come up short. What you will likely discover is that coaches , fans, and players have respect for someone working as hard as they can to win as you are to deliver the fairest game possible where the teams decide the outcome.
Thoughts from our CEO:
I selected Frank’s piece because not only did I find immense value in his opinions, but I was wowed by the way his writing communicated his personality and emotion. Frank writes about our endless pursuit of the “flawless game,” the Holy Grail for sports officials. Rather than become apathetic in the face of this impossibility, Frank believes the pursuit of perfection permeates into the rest of his life, making him a better teacher, spouse, father, and man.
Frank’s optimism, competitive spirit, and obvious passion come across clear as a bell. It really makes you feel like he’s someone you want to sit on a back porch with, drink a cold drink, and talk to about sports, life, and everything in between. While we as officials rightfully spend our time focused on performing well for our athletes, sometimes it’s good to remember to focus a little bit on ourselves and our own motivations too.
Untitled by Will Siegel
The roar from the crowd intensifies as the sun beats down on the diamond for the big afternoon showdown. Nate walks up to the plate to hit, waving to his parents in the stands as they cheer him on. Digging his feet into the batter’s box, Nate adjusts his cap, looks at the pitcher and says, “Bring me what you got.” He smiles and cocks his bat back. The pitcher hurls his lob-ball right down Broadway, looking as big as a watermelon for Nate. He cocks his bat back, steps and throws his arms at the ball. Thwack! The ball rockets through the right side of the infield and the fielders are sent scrambling into the outfield grass. He rounds first, kicking up dust as he sprints past the roaring crowd. Rounding second, he picks up speed, only slowing down to not miss third base. I meet Nate as he slides into home, jumping up with his hands raised, seemingly breaking both my hands with a powerful high five. A base-clearing home run for the lefty! This was his first hit-a big one at that-off coach pitching, and I exclaim, “Look at you, teeing off without a tee!” He smiles and says, “I wanted to do that for you, Will.”
Nate will never be a Major League prodigy, nor will he play in competitive Little League divisions with his friends. Nate has autism, and like other kids with mental and physical disabilities with a love of baseball, plays every Sunday in the spring season for the local Challenger League. Armed with a bat, glove, sunglasses and an eagerness to play, Nate was paired as my buddy on my first day of Challengers.
Nate at first was very shy, at times running over to his parents because he was nervous. He reluctantly agreed to toss the ball with me, constantly readjusting his hat and glove to distract himself. At one point in our warm up, he turns his hat around and looks towards his parents. They laugh and he laughs too. I turn my hat around and flip my sunglasses upside down, and he does the same. We shared a laugh, and our bond was formed.
Nate had a tee at home he hit off with his dad, so he preferred the tee during games. During games, he was on the Cardinals, sporting number five and hitting “clean-up”, or fourth. Big League slugger and former Cardinal Albert Pujols became his idol after I assigned it to him, and we vowed to hit a home run off real pitching before seasons’ end.
Every game day, we would both come early and set up a hitting station in the outfield. Nate had a very downward-think chopping wood-type swing. All he was hitting was ground balls off the tee. Each week would be a different adjustment to his swing-one week it was getting feet aligned towards the pitcher, another week it was straightening his back, another week it was me guiding his hands level to the baseball. As the weeks went on, he began to hit more and more of my pitching, and one fateful afternoon, he told me he no longer wanted the tee.
Hitting last in the order, he was supposed to hit all the runners in and make it as far around the bases as he could. As I watched from close by, he needed no help setting himself up, and the first pitch he saw he crushed for a base clearing home run, just like we had practiced.
There was much to celebrate. After getting his well-deserved post-game goodies, he walked up to me, said thank you, and gave me a huge hug and I couldn’t help but smile. In a league defined by playing for fun, no score needs to be kept to realize winning isn’t by who is ahead, but by your love for the game.
As officials, we need to continue to grow this love of game for our youth. This lesson I learned from Nate gets too lost in the spirit of competition. A good officiated game is one where officials blend into the action, however, we should continue to take a step back from seriousness of our job. Let’s continue to be the strong communicators we are, but push more than just sportsmanship. We each got into profession because of our love of sports in some way, so let’s take an active role of preaching that to the younger generation. Let’s come back from these tough times we are stronger and profound love for the love of sport.
Thoughts from our CEO:
I loved Matt Christopher books as a kid. I devoured them. While I was never a particularly great athlete, it was through these books that I learned the ways sports and culture truly intertwine. I remember it was the first time I read the word “prejudiced” and the first time I was confronted with some of the unfortunate realities of our world.
Will’s essay brought me the same joy I had when I read “Catcher with a Glass Arm” and “Hockey Magic.” Will writes about coaching Nate, a young man with autism and the perseverance to accomplish every hitter’s goal: hit a home run. Will writes about the ways the two men worked together towards this goal and Nate’s ultimate success. It’s a great story that reminds us of the magic of sports, but Will’s conclusion about officiating is one worth re-reading: officials sometimes need “to take a step back from the seriousness of our job” and remember our love of sports. Will argues we need to certainly be professional, but sometimes officials need to remember that sports are sports, games are games, and it’s really the joy of the participant that makes them worthwhile.
Competition at its Worst by Benji Gold
In Season 4 episode 4 of The West Wing, Deputy White House Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman, says, “You know, there comes a day in every man’s life, and it’s a hard day, but there comes a day / when he realizes he’s never going to play professional baseball.” Josh is a character who spends his life governing the United States, yet he is still fixated on baseball. As a young adult, I too am starting to realize that I will never be able to play Major League Baseball. I have played baseball since preschool, but I am only now, as I conclude my junior year of high school, realizing that I will never get to play the game I love at a professional level.
I have also played recreational basketball for over a decade, yet I never thought I could play it professionally. I never even had a glimmer of hope that I would someday be standing on the hard wood of an NBA court. This exemplifies a large problem in the world of rec basketball. I never felt like I could play in the NBA because basketball is hyper competitive from a young age.
Rec sports, especially for elementary schoolers, are about building fundamentals. They are about ensuring that every kid has a sound knowledge of the rules of the game and the skills necessary to play it well. When we are put in competitive situations, we lose our focus on building skills and only focus on winning. For kids like myself, who aren’t particularly athletic, this creates a problem. Every time I got the ball as a basketball beginner I was left with the same choice: shoot and miss, or dribble and turn the ball over. I would be shunned by my team for both taking either of these options, even though dribbling and shooting in a game is the only way to get better. Because I didn’t want to be ridiculed by my teammates and friends, I would pass the ball to our best player. He would then shoot, and score and we’d win the game. He would improve, while I couldn’t shoot any better than when I had entered the gym before the game. Everyone on my team could leave the gym happy.
I may have been leaving the game happy, but never any better at the sport I came to play. As I kept playing, the best player kept getting passed to. Because of this, they kept getting better. I kept passing. While I became the best passer on the team, I was also the worst shooter and ball-handler on the team, and there was no sign that I was improving. This only created a cycle where I would get the ball, know I couldn’t score, and pass again. This whole cycle was only created out of a desire to win the game. This cycle was created by the mentality of my coaches, teammates, and the league as a whole. We saw winning as the reason we were playing. Because of this, I never felt like I had skill set necessary to play in the NBA.
This is okay. Not everyone has the skills to be a professional athlete. The players in the NBA only got there because they are extraordinarily good at the sport. What’s not okay, is that out league mentality did not give me the skills necessary to pursue a life in professional basketball, if I wanted one. It is up to the adults who run these leagues, as commissioners, coaches and referees, to ensure that every child is given the chance to develop their fundamentals. This should be done in an environment where they will not be afraid to fail. The intensity of rec basketball helps make it fun, but it is problematic that the games are so intense, even while the players are so young. Now, as a high schooler, I ref rec basketball. I once again see coaches yelling at their players for taking a bad penalty and kids afraid to shoot because they fear missing the shot.
We, the refs, coaches, and league administrators must work to prevent this from happening. When a third-grade player commits a three second violation we should explain to them what they did wrong, and we should explain to them why the rule is what it is. When a player misses a key free throw their coach should tell them they’ll get it next time rather than putting his hands in his head in disgust. In practices, coaches should emphasis passing and building teams, rather than letting the best player hog the ball. Moreover, league commissioners and coaches should deemphasis winning games. They should potentially even remove the playoffs or trophies from the novice leagues.
By doing all of these things, we will create an environment that rewards efforts and encourages young players to try the sport and to shoot the ball, even if they may miss. This way, every kid will feel like they matter on the court, or at the very least that they are improving. Never again will a kid play an entire season without scoring a basket (something I did multiple times). Children are highly impressionable, so if we the adults can set an example for the level of competitiveness we want them to display, they will follow our lead. This will create a better atmosphere for learning the game. By doing this, we can create rec basketball leagues that inspire everyone to dream about going to the NBA.
Thoughts from our CEO:
If Benji hadn’t written he’s a junior in high school, I wouldn’t have believed it. His prose and insights are far more mature than his years. Benji’s essay focuses on a topic very near to my heart: the overcompetitiveness of recreational sports. Benji describes his basketball career and how the pressure to win undermined his own development as a player. Now, as a referee, he often sees young boys and girls who suffer the same insecurities he once did. Benji calls on his peers in the officiating avocation to remind coaches and parents that youth athletes should be out there having fun; that every kid should shoot once, let alone score, at some point every season; and that it’s our job to not only officiate, but educate. Benji asks our referee community to teach a player why they committed a foul or remind them it’s okay they missed a key free throw.
Benji ends his essay by widening the scope of his argument, even suggesting we examine the removal of post-season play in recreational youth leagues so that coaches and players focus on fun, not trophies. (Personally, I agree with this controversial position.)
Benji opened his essay with a line from The West Wing, so I’ll conclude with a line from another Sorkin show, Sports Night. Casey, a jaded sports TV anchor, prepares to quit his job. But as he prepares to do so, he catches live coverage of an injured runner on pace to crush the world record in the 900m. Reinspired by the runner’s feat, he calls his young son instead of his boss. “Charley, hey, it’s dad. You finish your homework?… Turn on your TV, I want you to watch this.” In the end, as both Sorkin and Benji know, athletics are about joy, not competition.