Reffing: A Tough, Thankless Job

I wrote a column last year after interviewing one of the Kaua’i youth soccer referees. At the time I stated that while I used to think being a ref would be a fun way to stay around sports, I had come to the conclusion that I’d never actually want to be in that position. I thought it would be a thankless and stressful job that is so easy to ridicule and not so easy to do.

Well, after now actually taking on that challenge a few times recently, I can honestly say that, yes, I was totally correct in that analysis.

I’ve been coaching a youth basketball team up here on the North Shore – the Hanakila division I and II boys, grades 3 through 6 – and it has been a blast. But one unique aspect of the games is that coaches whose teams are not playing at the time have to referee one of the other day’s games.

Others might enjoy it, but I certainly don’t. And up to this point, the games I have reffed are really only exhibitions. There aren’t any tangible ramifications for a win or a loss, but you wouldn’t know that from the effort given or the expressions on the players’ (or parents’) faces.

In a game I reffed recently, I did something I probably would have been highly critical of if I were a player, a fan or a simple spectator.

It was only the second basketball game I’ve ever reffed, and it was an upper-division matchup of seventh and eighth graders. We let the kids play throughout the contest, not calling too many ticky-tack fouls and mostly allowing things to work themselves out on the floor.

The game was good, physical and close. In the final minute, the teams found themselves deadlocked, tied up in the closing seconds.

As the clock ticked down, one player made a move toward the rim. He got himself into the paint, where a number of defenders surrounded him. Finding a sliver of space, he started to go up toward the rim for a short attempt. Watching from the three-point arc, my eyes focused on the defender’s hand that clearly came across the shooter’s wrist as he made his attempt at the game-winning hoop.

Without hesitation, I blew the whistle. Almost immediately, I regretted it. Looking up at the scoreboard, I had put a player on the free-throw line with just one second left in the tie game.

I had seen a foul. I was sure of it.

But it was a bailout call. The shooter wasn’t even fully facing the rim. It was highly unlikely he would have converted that shot with so much congestion around him. If it were an NBA game or I was watching from the stands, I would have muttered “How do you make that call?” Sure, it was a foul, but with just one second left?

As the shooter stood at the foul line about to take his two attempts, I was consciously hoping for him to miss. It had nothing to do with the teams or the players. I wasn’t rooting for one side. I was rooting for overtime and hoping to not have to make another game-changing call.

When he missed the first free throw, I felt halfway relieved.

“OK, just miss this next one, we’ll play another few minutes and I can go home guilt-free.”

Well, he didn’t miss the second. It rattled around the iron and fell through. The other team didn’t get off a shot in the last second and it was a one-point victory.

I kept telling myself, “You saw it. His arm got hacked. A foul is a foul.”

It was true, but not comforting.

I like coaching infinitely more than I like reffing. (By the way, my kids are currently undefeated. A quick shout out to the Hanakila boys for making me look good.) For some reason, the calls always seem much easier from the sideline.

I’m sure I’ll be reffing a few more games soon, so I need to get more comfortable with the whistle. And don’t think I won’t make the tough call in the closing seconds – if I absolutely, positively have to.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year and may all your sports be good!