Schools struggle with fairness in high school officiating
Ravell Call, Deseret News
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.
NO SUPPORT FROM COACHES
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."
Many coaches are unwilling to support the three-official crews because they know the reality is that girls already get less experienced referees. To some degree, girls games are seen as a training ground, a stepping stone to boys games.
The reality is that some officials don't want to work girls games. For others, girls games are seen as a stepping stone to officiating boys games.
Price said he's been asked by officials to write letters of recommendation for referees who've done a good job managing his games.
"They worked hard and did a really good job," said Price. "They want to get noticed so they can go do boys. So they've asked me to write letters and I've done that. Then they get to the boys level, and if they have to come back and do girls, they're not nearly as good as when all they could do were girls' games. There is just a mentality, and I don't know how to solve that."
Skyline athletic director and long-time girls basketball coach Deb Bennett uses a teaching analogy when describing the situation.
"As a teacher, I don't get to teach only one gender," she said. "I have to teach both."
But officials are private contractors who may not work if they are required to take jobs they don't enjoy. Petty said officials often have other jobs and family commitments and sometimes they're simply taking games that fit their schedules.
Bennett said she also voted against three-official crews when polled for the same reasons expressed by Price.
"The biggest issue for women was that we wanted our officials to be drawn from the same pool as varsity boys," she said. "We weren't against three refs as much as we were against getting more inexperienced officials. Can't we have some equality in officiating?"
When the state instituted three-official crews for boys, the best and most ambitious officials gravitated to those assignments because they aspired to work at the highest levels. If officials hope to move into junior college or college ranks, they must be proficient in three-person mechanics.
"The unintended outcome for the women, once we went to three-person rotation format, was that is made it even worse," said Bennett.
"I think we need to revisit those conversations," Bennett said. "Based on where we are now, we need to have it equitable."
She said if cost is an issue, then the change should be to go back to two officials for all levels, both genders. Referees for high school sports are paid for in the preseason and regular season by the high schools.
"If administrators say we can't afford it, well, now we're violating Title IX to pay for boys and not girls," Bennett said.
There is no easy way to get around it. Part of the problem in adopting the proposal that is universally favored by officials and used in all but a handful of states at the high school level, is financial.
"The executive committee was reluctant to spend the extra money, even on the boys side," said Petty. Because of that, basketball officials opted to take a pay cut five years ago, if principals would give the system a try. Now the state is a year into a series of pay raises for officials in all sports.
"I’m a proponent of two officials for both men's and women's basketball," said Granger principal Jerry Haslam. "I don't think it's a safety issue. I don't think the game is fast enough that you need the third official. And I'll be really honest with you, the cost of the third official, in a school like Granger where we don't fill up the gym, well, it becomes cost prohibitive."
Haslam said Granger has spent $10,500 since August on officiating for all of the sports in which the 5A school participates. And, he points out, that is just one of the costs associated with paying for athletic programs sponsored by high schools.
"It's becoming very burdensome to put uniforms on kids and pay for everything and make it all work," he said. "At Granger High, we have an enrollment of 1,600 and 50 percent of those (students) are on fee waivers."
That means those students' families qualify to be exempted from the fees charged by schools for participation in activities. Those fees, however, cover the costs of running the programs, and the money has to be made up somewhere.
Petty said officials were so eager to see the new system in place in all high school games, they agreed to a $5 pay cut to work games with three officials.
An official in a two-person crew is paid $56.50 per game, while an official working a three-person crew is paid $51.50.
He estimates that adding a third official to girls varsity games would cost schools an additional $600 per season. And while that doesn't sound like much, principals like Taylorsville's Garrett Muse, who serves on the executive committee, said every seemingly small fee adds up to a difficult bill to pay.
"I'm a little bit torn," said Muse. "Some of us are not entirely sure the refereeing is necessarily significantly different than when we had two officials. We know the officials like it a lot better. We know it's easier But the regions have to look at all of the sports, and the money we're paying for officials, and asking 'What are we doing as regions to recoup that money?' Do we raise ticket prices, charge for all sports, charge senior citizens? I'm not sure."
Granite District provided the Deseret News with what basketball officiating cost some of its schools in the 2011-12 season. Cottonwood spent $5,426.80; Granger spent $6,037.80; Kearns spent $5,433; Olympus spent $5,537.60; Skyline spent $5,658.20; and Taylorsville spent $4,850.
In fact, Price was told that if he voted for three officials, he'd have to pay for that third referee from fundraising efforts by his team.
"I think the girls get a backseat to what the boys get," he said.
That includes, coaches said, only using three officials during the state tournament.
Vicki Bohney, president of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association and head coach at Taylorsville High, said it's almost unfair to ask the girls to play all season with two officials and then adjust to three in the tournament.
"We don't see it all year," she said. "I think it just throws everybody off. It's not a bad thing per se; it's just different. I would be in favor of three if we could get that throughout the season." In some cases, that's because officials who are assigned to girls tournaments have been officiating boys games during the regular season.
"The people who will referee at the state tournament are not the ones I saw during the year," said Bingham coach Rand Rasmussen.
He praised Petty for putting higher-rated officials on critical girls games, but agrees with Price that generally girls get less-experienced, less-qualified officials. Like Price, he has anecdotes about how that situation has changed the nature of a game, a region seeding and the general experience girls have playing high school basketball.
The fact that many officials would rather work boys games is a problem not easily solved.
"I get it," Rasmussen said. "Let's say all good players have a bit of an ego. All good referees have a little bit of an ego. I'd rather ref in front of 5,000 instead of 50. It's more exciting. Nevertheless, that hurts us."
Female players, Rasmussen said, are constantly adjusting to different scenarios be it game times, facilities or different types of officiating.
"Why do we have to do the adjusting all of the time?" he asked.
Which is why Petty's newest proposal may not address the issue as easily as it seems to at first glance.
Petty recommends having girls and boys play at the same school on the same night using the same three-person officiating crew. Girls would play at 5:15 p.m. and boys would play at 7 p.m.
Both Bennett and Price said not all schools have the facilities to house both boys and girls, and both are quick to point out that it would be girls who get the lesser facilities.
"I know it would happen because it has happened," said Bennett, who points out that Skyline's team was recently asked to use a locker room that isn't even inside the school or gymnasium.
"There is also the problem of when and where to play sophomore and JV games because you practice as a team," she said.
Rasmussen said he would refuse to support that plan unless the girls and boys took turns playing at 5:15 and 7 p.m.
"I'd be delighted to do that, but I don't think we should say one program is more important than the other," he said. "What message are you sending if the girls are always the warm-up for the boys? I think we should be treated equal."
Adds Bennett, "I don’t think it's feasible for all schools And my experience with girls at 5:15 is that it becomes the pre-game for the main event. Girls games can't be a warm-up act for the boys games. Schools have to manage that so one program isn't demeaned."
Petty is hoping coaches and principals will consider some changes after this season.
"I think there needs to be some kind of compromise," said Petty. "If the girls and boys played back-to-back, it may be even better for girls because they're going to get three officials who may not normally be working their games. To me, that would help improve the quality of officials."
But the bottom line for Petty is that three-official crews improve the quality of the game.
And while coaches and administrators may have to hash out specifics, most agree with Petty that the issue needs reviewed.
"I think it's a great time to revisit," said Bennett. "Based on where we are and what we need, we have to make it more equitable."
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