MPSSAA working to improve high school sports officiating across Maryland
In 29 years as an NCAA Division I basketball official, Donnee Gray refereed “the big boys,” he said. The Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Big 12, Conference USA, and the list goes on. But he cuts it off there to save time.
“Anyway,” he said, “in all those years, I’ve only been interviewed once. So now, what can I tell you?”
Gray took over as the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association officials coordinator last year. He can fill in the gaps on the quality of officiating around the state. He personally hand-picks officials for state tournament games. He helps delegate what referee associations manage what games in nearly every jurisdiction.
Gray is the soft-spoken and even-keeled boss whose job it is to dwell in a world built on a second level of objectivity. If game officials often are denounced, imagine what the state’s chief official must hear.
“We are the gatekeepers of the game,” he said in his first interview years ago. He repeats the same sentiment now. “We are beyond reproach.”
A numbers game
Reproach is one thing that keeps potential officials away from the field or court, said Bill Harvey, CEO of the Washington Area Lacrosse Officials Association.
New referees usually start their training in youth sports, which has become more highly charged and competitive. Fresh recruits sometimes shy away from the assertiveness necessary to wrangle with fired-up coaches and parents.
“Most of the people who get into it find out quickly officiating is for me or is not for me,” Harvey said.
WALOA has devised a feeder system to expand its 500-person membership to keep up with demand as the sport gains popularity. The group started a program to enlist high school lacrosse players to officiate youth games. Several years ago USA Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, picked up the initiative nationwide.
“We feel right now for the first time, we’ve stabilized,” he said. “We groom ’em, we grow ’em and we train ’em. Consider the high school player. He’s making $40 an hour for a game. I don’t know any entry-level job who’s going to make more than $12 an hour.”
State lacrosse committee director Ken Zorbach said many jurisdictions purposefully stagger their games, though — to avoid conflicts with recreational or youth leagues, to keep field space available, and to be sure officials are not busy.
Washington District Football Officials Association Commissioner Al Ferraro said the WDFOA completely stopped taking youth league games years ago to avoid the inevitable: not having enough members to staff every game.
“You’d like to get to all the games you can,” Ferraro said. “You’d have better service for the schools and the community. There’s plenty of area to grow, but not enough people.”
The association’s 295 members cover varsity and junior varsity football in seven jurisdictions in Maryland, Virginia and the District.
Ferraro assigns officials to regular-season games and sends recommendations to Gray to assemble crews for the playoffs. Like many assigners, he tries to find a balance between putting his best officials at every “big game” or ensuring referees avoid seeing the same team multiple times.
“If last year Rockville was playing Kennedy and Quince Orchard was playing Damascus, what would you do?” he said. There are about two “big games” each week, Ferraro said, that require the best crews, but he does his best to assure quality all around the region. “I never leave a game without what I call a ‘number 1 official.’”
Ferraro, a man whose job it is to evaluate those who keep the peace, is blunt.
“Officials are like crabs,” he said. “There’s number 1’s, number 2’s and there’s shucks.”
Becoming an official means recognizing you are flawed, a thought drilled into your head during training. Learn to work as a team, lesson plans dictate. Let your crew members make the call if you don’t have a good angle. Admit your mistakes and crack down on them. Communicate with coaches and players. Embrace critiques when you are evaluated.
“Punish the first foul and legislate the game,” Gray tells officials before state tournament matches.
Each year, Gray and each sport’s state committee director send a posse of evaluators to observe referees in line to manage playoff games. They return with an up or down vote on the official’s readiness for the big stage with judgments based on ability, mechanics and communication. Not everyone fits the mold.
Gray said in recent years fewer older, perhaps more experienced, officials are taking those spots. People with that much experience may not be in the best physical shape, he said, where younger officials, who have put in the work and are better able to deal with the physical demands of the job, deserve a shot.
“You want to leave when you are perceived to be at the top of your game,” Gray said. It’s the reason he retired from officiating NCAA games. “It’s hard to get people to understand that until it’s a bit too late.”
Chris Sole, secretary of the Maryland Basketball Officials Association, agrees. Sole, 60, said he blocks out time to exercise several days a week so his physical fitness will not impact his calls come basketball season.
“We get a lot of people who are older and think that now’s the time to start reffing,” he said. “Well that’s not the case. You still have to be able to run.
“When you say officials, we have people who are wannabes,” Sole said. “Some people can go work the youth leagues, but not high school. Numbers aside, we need more officials, not just bodies.”
Gray encourages officials associations to diversify age when assembling crews. For a football crew, for example, maybe the referee is a veteran, but the back judge is a bit more green.
“The smartest thing you can do is blend the two,” Gray said. “What you can do is the guy that’s been out there for a long time, he’s the teaching official. It’s more than just blowing the whistle.
“You put experience with youth who deserve to be there.”
‘We’ve been pretty good’
Gray said the state of Maryland’s officials is strong, but can improve. Numbers-wise, he says, the bases are covered. Performance-wise, there remains a desire to call games fair and clean.
“We’re no better than doctors or lawyers or police officers,” Gray said. “Some of us are better than others, but we’ve been pretty good.”
Yes, he gets negative feedback, he said, but it’s nothing unusual. By and large, coaches and athletic directors are satisfied with performance. At each post-term meeting, he said, he’s never had a committee member scrutinize referee performance.
Longtime coach and now Allegany High School principal Mike Calhoun said rules enforcement and overall officiating has improved greatly in recent years. The state’s football delegate to the National Federation of High School Sports said officials have done an excellent job regarding player safety and in moving the game along. But there still is one call that drives Calhoun up a wall.
“I hate the holding call,” he said. “There’s holding that happens on every play.”
But his opinion doesn’t matter anymore, he said with a sigh.
“Like I used to tell my players, once you kick the football, the refs are in charge. A good official is priceless.”