Schools struggle with fairness in high school officiating

Published: Sunday, Feb. 17 2013 5:10 p.m. MST

Jessica Richardson of Davis greets referees Maurice Roberts and Sherman Hadley as Davis High School faces Weber High School girls basketball played in Kaysville, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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MIDVALE — Life can be unfair.

But when it comes to athletics sponsored by public schools, federal law mandates fairness. In other words, boys and girls must have the same opportunities.

So if high schools use three referees to officiate boys' basketball games and two for girls' games, is that fair? Does one system of officiating develop better, more college-ready players? Or does it matter how many officials are on the floor when it comes to the evolution of players and the game?

The answers to these questions and others like them appear to be a lot more complicated than anyone imagined five years ago when the Utah High School Activities Association's executive committee voted to conduct a pilot program that is now in its fifth year. During that time, principals and coaches have participated in polls that show mixed support for the use of three officials.

"Game management is better with three officials," said Mike Petty, who oversees officiating for the UHSAA. "There is better coverage of the floor, it's easier to work, and it allows younger officials to learn alongside more experienced officials. They (referees) obviously feel like it's helped the game. It's helped veteran guys stay in (officiating) longer and allows younger officials to be mentored while they learn."

For officials, it is by far the preferred system.

Among coaches and administrators, however, support for the three-official system remains lukewarm.

As high school administrators considered when, if and how they should use three officials, just as club and colleges have for more than a decade, they sought the input of coaches — men's and women's. While it was far from unanimous, the boys coaches voted to try a three-official crew in 2008, while the girls coaches voted not to go that route.

The first season the system was implemented in only 5A boys games. The second season it expanded to include 4A games as well.

After two years, UHSAA staff shared data with principals that showed games officiated by three referees didn't take longer to play and the number of fouls was relatively similar to games that were officiated by two-ref crews. Reviews from coaches ranged from ambivalent to favorable. While supporters said the system better prepared players for the physicality of college basketball, detractors said it made little difference and was just more expensive.

The principals who make up the executive committee voted to continue the program with 4A and 5A boys but not expand it to girls games.

Two reasons were cited: a lack of support and increased costs.


Layton High coach Van Price said he and others voted against the proposal because girls were already getting less experienced, lower-rated officials and they worried the new system would just exacerbate the problem.

"I think the girls get a backseat to what the boys get," said Price, who also spent two years as a boys assistant coach. "To add a third one, if he or she isn't good, then by all means no, we don't want three. I don't want a one (the highest rating for an official) trying to overcompensate for a four or five (lower-rated officials)."

The girls and their coaches got a taste of what they were missing when the executive committee voted to use three officials in postseason play in 3A, 4A and 5A — boys and girls tournaments two season ago.

While that converted some coaches, it did not persuade others.

"I don't see that three refs has helped at all," said Price. "To me, in my mind, it's made it worse. If you did it the whole year, and the girls got at least two higher-rated officials, then I would probably go for that."