Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Few Official Points To Consider

This morning Detroit Free Press preps writer Mick McCabe grabbed the attention of every official in the metro Detroit area, and probably many statewide, too.

McCabe wrote about the standard to bear for a game official to be assigned the tournament finals, including the way an official receives a rating, a lack of accountability if an official makes a mistake and finally, why the best officials aren't always on the biggest games because the state has a five-year respite rule for officials between finals' assignments.

A great read and a good snapshot of the officiating culture in the MHSAA footprint, except for one missing point, a large point of contention if you ask me and many others, and it has to do with why officials who work the finals can't receive the same assignment for another five seasons.

The five-year respite rule is in place because the same officials from the same zones got the same championship assignments for years and years and years under former leadership. Why did that happen? One, there was no such rule to prohibit the practice. Second, every officiating association is asked to submit a list of 10 names for the annual, championship tournaments. Many years the favorite sons of the power brokers in these associations were penned in at the expense of other deserving officials, sometimes under an erase-and-replace scenario. I know -- it's happened to me and many others.

That's politics, to make it short and sweet. Give MHSAA Associate Director Mark Uyl and the MHSAA credit for trying to share the playoff experience by expanding the field of qualified officials. This motivates more officials to work harder to polish their craft and helps extinguish the belief that the playoffs are an exclusive club for a select few officials. McCabe points out a handful of mistakes in last week's games as evidence that this policy is misguided. That's a fair complaint. There's a few growing pains, but expanding the pool of qualified playoff officials won't come without a few bumps and bruises. No one wants to see a mistake impact a game, and no athletic director wants to have that mistake happen in their school's game, but how do you expand that pool and expect perfection? Something's got to give.

I used to wonder how I can work three sports collegiately, one at the Division-I level, and not get past the quarterfinal in every state tournament since I became eligible except one. Then I got a good look at the nomination process, and the truth is, being a good politician goes a lot further than being a good official. I'm not saying good officials don't get good assignments, but I am saying I'm not the first official to feel this way. On the other hand, it's always easy to feel slighted because every good official feels they're not moving up the ladder the way they should. I've made some mistakes in my officiating career, so I'm humble enough to be thankful for what I have been assigned and not lament what I haven't been assigned.

McCabe points out a fairly accurate number of flaws in the ratings system but there's a caveat to the coaches' ratings that was overlooked. A lot of officials pass on the right call, the tough call and sometimes, the call that is both of those things to keep a good rating in tact. That's not wrong, that's simply playing by the rules. That McCabe has never seen a flagged waved off all year could be a possible example of this. Most qualified officials know some coaches don't know the rules or don't recognize all the indicators of a good official, so they protect themselves from a bad rating from the coaches. That's simply insulating yourself from a bad mark from those who have the most influence.

Is that any different than any other workplace culture in America? No.

The MHSAA represents the schools, so ultimately, it's the schools that are comfortable with these decisions. The flaws in the ratings system that McCabe illustrated are correct. Trust me when I say the schools, the MHSAA, the coaches and officials across the state know the rating system is flawed when it comes to giving an accurate picture of an official's true acumen. But there's little resource to offer anything else at the high school level. It's not a perfect world.

I think the MHSAA is doing the right thing, slowly but surely, in expanding the pool of qualified officials. It will take some time. The officials will make some mistakes. The MHSAA will make an assignment or two they regret. Mistakes will happen. There's some conflict-of-interest issues and some repetitive assignment issues to still be ironed out. It takes a long time to change long-held beliefs and cultures. Be patient.

The MHSAA and the schools they represent can't expect their best officials to be able to officiate forever. Officiating isn't a growth industry and the MHSAA is doing what they can to change that, so you can't expect progress without a few mistakes.

Prep sports is ultimately about doing your best, working hard to improve yourself and your team and being a good representative of your community. The MHSAA's officiating platform has to be allowed to expand under the same guidelines.

~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Basketball Rivalries, due August 2009 from Arcadia Publishing

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