Prep basketball: Passion overrides low pay, abuse for officials
The three referees hustle in from the hallway and slip into seats around the large table in the brick-walled custodial lounge at Timpview High School. It is halftime of a sloppy early season boys' basketball game between Timpview and Timpanogos, and the referees are huddling in the dim room to evaluate their first-half performance.
"We're calling a lot of fouls," said Kelly Kinghorn, a 20-year refereeing veteran, raising his eyebrows, "but there's a lot out there. I think it's pretty balanced. I haven't heard much from the coaches."
Greg Spencer points to Andy Toolson, the former BYU basketball star who now referees high school games, and compliments him on correctly calling a difficult and-one near the end of the half. It becomes clear while listening to them rehash the first two quarters that there is much pride in getting each call right.
After the three of them finish discussing the game, a few minutes still remain before they must go back into the gym. The conversation wanders. A snowstorm had blustered through the valley that day, and the temperature in the gym was frigid. Kinghorn tells the others that he is sweating from running up and down the court, but his hands still are freezing.
"It's like a European gym," adds Toolson, who played overseas after his BYU career.
When it finally is time to resume the game, they head back through the halls to the gym, but the doors are locked. The second half nearly is set to begin, and the referees can't get onto the court.
It is then that Kinghorn with a smile utters a truism. It reveals the importance of those who persevere through unremarkable wages and steady harassment from fans and coaches to pursue a passion. Without them, the games would stop, and Utah is fortunate to have a healthy supply of men and women willing to take the work.
"It's OK," Kinghorn said, standing outside the locked door. "They can't play the game without us."
For the love of it
Kinghorn and Spencer arrived at the school more than an hour before the game after carpooling from Salt Lake City. They quickly retired to the custodial lounge, where a crude sign written on lined notebook paper was posted on the door, announcing the room would be their makeshift locker room for the night.
Toolson showed up shortly after. They began swapping stories, from games they've refereed and their playing days. But the tone eventually turns serious.
The three of them change from their street clothes into striped shirts and black pants, and they no longer merely are friends. They are counterparts who have come to do a job, and have come, hopefully, to do it well. For Kinghorn, it is a transformation. He sells roofing products during the day, but he forgets about the outside world when he straps the whistle over his neck. He finds an inner focus.
"Refereeing is very difficult," he said. "And if you're thinking about problems at work, a fight with your wife, whatever, and you're not focusing 100 percent on what's happening, you're not going to be very good."
The referees' intensity continues to increase as game time nears. When they step into the gym as Timpview and Timpanogos warm up on their respective ends of the court, they are ready. They stand on the sideline opposite the team benches, stretching and going over any last-minute preparation. They are interrupted only by coaches and players, who periodically greet them to shake hands.
The demeanor in which the referees approach the game is easy to understand after spending any time discussing the craft with Kinghorn. Refereeing is not merely a way to earn some spare change $53, to be exact, for a varsity basketball game, plus 40 cents per mile for any miles traveled beyond 50. It's a trade that demands passion.
"We all spend the money, so it's nice to get the money," Kinghorn said. "But I mean it's $53. Is it worth 53 bucks to drive from Salt Lake with $3 gallon gas in a snowstorm to a gym that's probably going to have 100 people in it? That's not worth $50. So if it's just for the money, you can make more money easier doing something else."
Why, then, do referees travel far from home during time that could be spent with family to small high school gyms filled with ill-behaved fans on cold winter nights? Sitting in the lounge before the game, Kinghorn explained. There is the love of sport, and there is pride in calling a good game, a sense of deep satisfaction at a job well done.
"When you get done with a game that's a good game, and you did a good job, that in and of itself is a reward," Kinghorn said.
Along with that, there also is a responsibility, one that drives referees to spend years honing their craft to become better.
"On the flipside of that, when you get done and you did a bad job, it's terrible," Kinghorn said. "I made a rules mistake in the state tournament last year, and I felt like garbage. Just terrible."
However, the benefits of being a referee sometimes do not outweigh the negatives. Mike Petty, supervisor of officials for the Utah High School Activities Association, said Utah rarely has trouble staffing its games soccer being an occasional exception. But Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials, said nearly every other state has a referee shortage, to varying degrees of severity. Put simply, many people are unwilling to accept the offered pay to do a difficult, demanding job.
"The easiest solution is to increase compensation," Mano said, "but that's not going to happen. You want to solve this problem, pay $200 a game. You'll have people climbing all over themselves but that's not real.
"We bring in warm bodies and have a huge turnover rate in the first three years: 'Why am I going to do this for 25 or 30 bucks?' "
Getting it right
It is impossible to know if on this night the three referees got every call right. It is very likely they didn't Kinghorn conceded he didn't know if he's ever called a perfect game but throughout the game there is little barking from the sidelines. When the clock has wound down and the final horn blasts, there has been no controversy, and the referees jog off the court, back to the lounge.
It has been a job done well and done fairly. That is an official's ultimate goal, something Kinghorn said eludes many fans, who often are caught up in their own rooting interests.
"The thing that people don't appreciate about officials is, day in day out, we don't care who wins. We really don't," he said. "We want to do things right, and when we don't do them right, we take it personally and it bothers us.
"Somebody asked me how I felt about replay, and I told them I thought it's a great thing. He said, 'Why? It will show you what you did wrong.' Well, it's about getting it right. If I make the call wrong at full speed, and we can correct it, I want that. Even if I'm the one that's wrong."
Of course, when a referee makes a mistake, or if fans, players or coaches perceive an official has made one, there always is backlash. Boos rain from the stands. Harsh words are chanted. But for Kinghorn, it is just something that comes with the job.
"Fans, you ignore," he said. "If you talk about my wife, my mother or my children, I'll have you thrown out, if you're a fan. And I've thrown exactly zero people out in my career. You can say anything you want about me you paid your $5, so I don't care."
But it isn't so easy for others. Combined with the mediocre compensation, dealing with unruly spectators and fiery coaches contributes to the high turnover rate of inexperienced officials. Courtney Littledike, who has been refereeing for six years, said dealing with the constant harassment from fans and displeased coaches is a strong deterrent for many officials.
"This isn't for everybody," he said from a cramped officials' locker room after officiating a boys' basketball game between American Fork and Bountiful. "It's not easy. Some people probably should get out. They're just not [cut out for it.] But I give those guys props who stick it out and make it."
Littledike agreed with Kinghorn that those who persevere learn how to zone out fans and loud coaches, to the point that they eventually become an afterthought. But getting to that point is difficult.
"My wife came when I first started doing it, and she said, 'I'll never go back. I just wanted to punch somebody. I had to bite my tongue,'" Littledike said. "It's hard, but it makes you thicker-skinned. It prepares you. It's a battleground."
Can't do it forever
Kinghorn has been a referee for 20 years, and his goal always has been to make it to 25. He hopes his knees hold up, because his 25th anniversary would coincide with turning 50, and that would be a nice, symmetrical number at which to call it a career.
Sitting in the lounge before the game, he reflected on his career, and on the looming end of it. He came to a conclusion: Though there is pride and satisfaction in refereeing well, there also is honor in a career spent making sure the game always is bigger than those calling it.
"Tomorrow night," he said, "I'm not refereeing. There are games that will go on. You can referee for so long, and then you've got to be done. And the games don't stop because you stop. â¦ I don't know that any referee feels like they play a part in the bigger picture."
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