The Nebraska School Activities Association serve public and non-public high schools in Nebraska.

Imagine. In the heat of the moment. On the court. Final seconds. Regulating the game. When the crowd is screaming the roof off the building to the point where you can’t hear yourself think, remember mechanics and rehearsing rules and violations in your head to make the right decision in any situation. Then, all of sudden, a dead silence made by the anticipation of the final signal from a certified male or female in black pants and a zebra-like top to end the game. You either hear cheers, complaints or a combination of both based on that final call.

The Nebraska State Activities Association has a problem that can affect high school and college sports in the state. Problem? Finding and hiring new officials to aid returning officials, and treating them with respect and sportsmanship on and off the court, field or wherever. 

Robert Brown, Jr., who has been officiating for the NSAA for a combined 27 years, 15 years in basketball and 12 years in football, knows the importance of sports officials after getting involved as a way to give back to the kids 

“When I put on the official uniform, it is a manager of the basketball game. But then also I am the facilitator of the rules as far as communicating with the coaches, the players and indirectly with the fans,” he said. “As you play the game, if you know more rules of the game, you can play the game even better. And then also you can teach the game better. I wanted an opportunity to actually be out there with my children and also the opportunity that some day maybe they want to take up this vocation and officiate.”   

And that’s just what I did. Robert is my father, and I’m a young NSAA basketball official myself. Officiating seems to be an easier job than expected but, in reality, it is not all fun and games. Especially since I am a younger official who is still learning how to become a better official though I have the fundamentals down due to playing the sport I’m officiating.

I’ve been officiating various sports where parents, coaches and even players question my credibility, try to belittle me and say outlandish and rude things to me to purposely get under my skin and won’t stop until the game clock is at zeros. 

Last summer, I was reffing an AAU tournament out in either Western or Eastern Nebraska, and I remember a team and coach that were giving me a hard time and a literal run for my money. It was a girls team with black jerseys and white numbers with a female coach. At the start of the game, everything was calm and the game was going smoothly. But as soon as I don’t agree with her on a call, she is coming for me, questioning my basketball knowledge of the game. And coming from a basketball player perspective, I found it disrespectful, and it turned into an argument. It was so bad to the point where my dad, who was my partner at the time, had to switch sides of the court so I could recompose myself and continue officiating the game. That experience for me was not pleasant at all but in the end, I learned from it and now I feel more comfortable with conflict management whether if it is players, parents or coaches.

Young officials like me and others who want to be NSAA officials should not have to prove themselves for the coaches or viewing audience who is there to cheer on their sons or daughters at their high school or college basketball, volleyball or whatever sport it is. Not to chastise and intimidate officials for doing their job to the best of their abilities. Parents, fans and the media should know that, besides the occasional miscalls, the majority of the losses athletes and teams take is not because of the officiating of the referees. I think once that is recognized, more will be interested and invested in becoming an NSAA sports official mainly if people give more sportsmanship to the facilitators of the game.

I wouldn’t have gotten into officiating if I didn’t play and watch the game of basketball and know all of the rules and regulations of the game overall. Also, people have to keep in mind that we all make mistakes and we all are still learning no matter how old we are. But not all officiating experiences are bad. It feels good when you get done with a game and your partner or a player’s parent walks up and tells you that you did a great job. It gives you that good feeling inside. All in all, officiating can go both ways in terms of reactions you’ll receive from people.

The working environment is not the only reason that sports officials are in a shortage and are in high demand. One obvious issue is that there are simply not enough female officials. As of January of last year, there are 917 total number of sports officials across the state and 28 officials are females — three percent. As far as collegiate sports, there are 900 officials working top-tier Division I basketball in the 2019-2020 season, and one was a female — Crystal Hogan. As of the 2020-2021 season, that number has doubled, thanks to Hogan’s influence to make female officiating a norm instead of a rarity.

As far as female referees in professional sports, there are five in the NBA as well as the WNBA and two in the NFL. Also, females are getting more exposure because females can be as good as the men or even better. Audiences, players and coaches need to stop over looking it and acknowledge it. That is how this lack of diversity will be fixed.

“Maybe for some women there is an intimidation factor,” said MK McGee who has been a NSAA basketball official for 27 years. “You’re going to be competing with men who have predominantly been in the field. And I think part of the hurdle there is just realizing you can do it. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female; males and females can both do this job, so you have to get over the cultural barriers that you know we are still sort of working through to recognize that both men and women can do this job.”

“These are women who are demonstrating the fact that women can do that. They are given that opportunity because someone believed in them, somebody decided, you know what, they are just as good as the guys. That changes the cultural idea that it’s different for men than it is for women. It’s just that women need to be granted the same opportunities as the men.” 

With COVID still an issue, it should not be used as an excuse for acting out of character or treating officials like they are inferior and not keeping the concerns of safety on their mind while in the mix of the sporting event. 

“Due to the pandemic, a lot of officials decided to hang it up and also the sportsmanship side of it,” Robert said. “Parents seem to go overboard at times because it’s all about a win-win-win situation, and at the end of the day, is it all about winning? And sometimes they put winning such on a high level that they don’t really understand what good sportsmanship is. What that is, is respecting your opponents, respecting the competition that you are against because the old adage, in order to be the best you have to go against the best, and you may not always win when you go against the best but that is how you get better. But in all in all, we want to have a good experience in the game of competition and that’s the bottom line ultimately. That’s the goal.”