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New DII program encourages student-athletes to consider officiating

Longtime referee Gerry Pollard urges student-athletes to stay close to their sport by officiating after college. Bill Greenblatt / UPI

When Gerry Pollard addresses a group of men’s basketball players off the court, he often starts with a simple question: “Guys, what do you personally think about referees?”

Eyes roll. Shoulders shrug. Players sigh. Pollard, the coordinator of men’s basketball officials for the Great Lakes Valley Conference, who is heading into his 34th year of officiating, has come to expect such reactions. After all, these student-athletes have seen the way coaches, parents and fans behave toward referees. They’ve heard the jeers and perhaps made their own snide remarks from time to time toward the people in stripes.

But that public perception and behavior, experts say, is contributing to a dearth in young people entering the officiating pipeline. According to a 2017 National Association of Sports Officials survey of more than 17,000 officials across all levels of sports, the officials’ average age was 53, a number that has consistently risen over the past four decades. In the 1970s, the average age of a starting official was 19 — compared with 47 in 2017.

The trend has caused growing concern among college athletics administrators and is the impetus for a new program in Division II. This fall, the Division II Conference Commissioners Association and the Division II Athletics Directors Association launched the Collegiate Player-to-Ref program, which aims to recruit outgoing student-athletes to become referees. The program will pair current referees with nearby Division II campuses to meet with teams and educate them on the officiating experience.  

“When we look at the demographics of the officials in particular sports, it’s going to be coming sooner than later when these folks are going to decide to retire, and then what?” says Jim Naumovich, commissioner of the Great Lakes Valley Conference. “That’s the big question. The Collegiate P2R program was initiated with those thoughts in mind.” 

Pollard, who started officiating when he was in college at Southeast Missouri State, plans to help the program any way he can. Now 58 years old, he has for years kept an eye out for college players who have the leadership skills and demeanor to make a good referee and has encouraged many to pursue that path. Some have gone on to become successful referees, working their way up from the youth to the college and even professional levels. Others have answered his encouragement with skepticism and some variation of, “Why would I want to do that and get yelled at every night?”

“We’ve just got to get that barrier knocked down for student-athletes,” Pollard says. “Hey, this is a way to stay close to the game. This is a way to make some extra money, and it’s a way to help a sport that you obviously love because you played it collegiately.”

The new Division II program will multiply these individual recruiting efforts with a more formalized and far-reaching approach backed by every conference. Chris Graham, commissioner of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, said that in crafting the program, the commissioners aimed to keep the implementation simple for already overworked athletics departments and focused primarily on personal connection. And that’s historically been an effective recruiting method: According to the NASO survey, more than half of officials got into the industry because somebody spoke with and encouraged them to consider officiating.

This fall, conferences will begin working with their officiating coordinators and administrators on campus to schedule referee and player meetings. Graham anticipates the RMAC’s first meetings will be in October with the start of basketball practices.

The Collegiate P2R program also will introduce an officials appreciation week in the fall (Oct. 7-13), winter (Jan. 27-Feb. 2) and spring (April 6-12).

“Whether you’re a parent at the youth level, a coach at the college level, a commissioner or just a casual fan, we all need to take responsibility,” Graham says. He points to the increase in athletics competitions at every level and overall sports participation compared with a steady decline in the number of officials. “It’s a dangerous inverse relationship that’s going to be very impactful and very costly in the future if we don’t do something.”

Making it as an official

The new Collegiate Player-to-Ref program in Division II aims to draw in student-athletes who might consider becoming officials when their playing days are done. Officiating can fill a competitive void for former student-athletes and keep them engaged with their sport, says Gerry Pollard, coordinator of men’s basketball officials for the Great Lakes Valley Conference. Pollard offers the following advice for those interested in giving it a shot: 

Don’t take it personally. Referees will never be the fan favorite. People are going to yell at you and call you names. “They’re yelling at the shirt,” Pollard says. “They’re yelling at your job, not you personally.”

Communicate with coaches. In the heat of competition, it can be difficult to respond to coaches directing ire your way. But over the years, Pollard has learned that most of the time, it helps to make coaches feel heard. If they ask a question about a call, answer it. He also finds this line useful: “I know you’re upset about that play. What’d you see?”

Lean on your leadership skills. Pollard sees similarities between team leaders and good referees. “That guy on the team that everybody turns to … if he can manage a situation on his team, he would be good at being able to manage situations as a referee.”

Continue your fitness. In many sports, athletes aren’t the only ones breaking a sweat. Officials need to keep up with the action to make the call. Former student-athletes are well-equipped for this challenge. “At a young age, take care of yourself,” Pollard advises.

Work your way up. In officiating, like most jobs, you usually start at the bottom. Youth leagues are a great place to gain experience. “I can’t get done playing at UIndy and referee in the GLVC the next year,” Pollard says. “It doesn’t work that way.”

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