Winter sports season is heating up throughout the Lehigh Valley and one of the great things about working as a Patch Local Editor is covering varsity level contests.
Yet, as I sit courtside, keeping notes and tabulating box scores, I hear the voices and calls coming from the stands.
A majority of those voices and calls consist of positive cheering for the players on both benches.
But the ones that stand out, ones making my spine cringe and stomach churn, are hurled toward the men and women dressed in black and white stripes blowing a whistle.
The first basketball game of the season, a varsity girls game at a local school, featured an exceptionally loud contingent of fans who spent most of the evening insulting, razzing and howling at the officials from the stands.
I can't help getting upset when I listen to people call referees bozos, clowns, idiots, blind and incompetent -- among other creative names. It happens at wrestling matches and football games, too.
You may wonder why an experienced sportswriter, journalist and editor might be so sensitive to this type of seemingly harmless chicanery. It's not like I haven't heard it all before, right?
Well, it's because I once blew the whistle as an accredited basketball official in New Jersey as a member of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials (IAABO) in the 1980s.
The men and women who officiate your kids' sub-varsity, varsity and local college basketball games don't do it for the money. Believe me, they don't. It's done for the enjoyment of the game and the hope that their time and commitment makes a difference.
Education, training and preparation for basketball officiating (or any other sport) isn't easy and requires a huge time commitment. Training is rigorous and at your own expense. Hours are spent in a classroom learning rules of the game. Passing a 100 question multiple-choice examination on rules and regulations are required for basketball officials every year.
Uniforms, shoes and equipment are purchased out-of-pocket. A year is spent as a "cadet" before a prospective official can even think about trying to apply for varsity level action. Even then, it's difficult to secure work as a junior varsity referee.
It took a couple of years to realize that I didn't have the personality to succeed as a varsity official. In fact, I might have set the record for most technical foul calls in one season in New Jersey's Greater Middlesex Conference.
I heard the catcalls from the stands. I heard the chirping from coaches and kids. I tried to block it out and not be an official with "rabbit ears." Didn't work.
Too many bad experiences in 1985 cemented my decision to hang up the whistle for good. A coach entered the post-game dressing room to scream at me while I was in the shower. Another waited for me in the school parking lot after a Friday night game in order to berate me while his team sat in the school bus waiting to head home.
The principal of that high school received a phone call first thing Monday morning and that gentleman was immediately relieved of his coaching duties.
But, the final straw occurred later that season. I'd officiated a difficult rivalry game that went into overtime. It featured a lot of complaining from players and coaches concerning nearly every call and the usual ranting and raving from the stands.
Another game was on my schedule the very next evening and I drove to the school gym bound and determined not to take any guff from anyone.
Early in that game, a foul call elicited a small reaction from a coach. Something to the effect of "what?"
Bang. Technical foul.
"Why?" he responded.
Bang. Technical foul number two. Automatic ejection.
As the four technical foul shots were taken – translating into four easy points – the realization that I'd ejected a coach for no good reason other than carryover aggravation from the prior night's game convinced me it was time to end my officiating career. And I did it the next morning.
Conditions and sportsmanship appear to have improved through the years. From my seat, Lehigh Valley Conference and Colonial League coaches and players rarely chirp at officials.
But the insults from the stands continue unabated. The referees are there so your kids can participate in youth and high school sports for their betterment. Most have pretty thick skins and block it out.
But I ask that when attending a sporting event – at any level – to think before you hurl epithets at game officials.
Make it your New Year's resolution.