Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The official viewpoint

(This article was originally written and appeared on our old blog in 2014. Since then, due to some staffing changes, we’ve seen substantial improvement in officiating at the high school level in SWFL. The situation has not changed in tournament play, however. It's not just my opinion but a shared one among program directors around the state that partisanship and poor quality of officiating has made tournament play at times an unpleasant experience.)


Anyone who’s attended a lacrosse game in the past year or so has undoubtedly been frustrated by the officiating. Consistency and quality of refereeing has been the top complaint we’ve received from players, parents and coaches alike. noticed that there is a dearth of good officiating. Whether it’s travel tournament or rec league games, there seems to be a dearth of good officiating. 

Fan (and coach and player) criticism of officiating is probably as old as sport itself. Realistically, no matter what the call, no matter how flagrant and obvious the offense, someone will disagree with it. That’s part of the game. However, there is a consensus among most in the lacrosse community that the quality of refereeing in Southwest Florida is not to the level it needs to be. 

I am sure that many referees who read this will disagree. Unfortunately, they are likely to be in the minority. That’s not to say there are not good refs-there are, in fact many of my  former Lee County Men’s Lacrosse Club teammates have gone on to be exceptional referees. Those that are good are very good and extremely fair. Those that are bad tend to be, well, horrible. There were several high school lacrosse game--and, in fact, one playoff game--decided by unquestionably bad calls on the part of the referees. Between bad calls and inconsistent interpretation of the rules among the varying referees (is a slash to the head a one-minute slash or a major, flagrant penalty? Depends which head ref you have on the field.)

The big questions is WHY? 

The next big question is HOW CAN WE FIX IT?

To answer the WHY, we have to look at a little history, a little economics, and a little physics. In our area, lacrosse referees are NOT, surprisingly as it may be (it certainly was to me when I learned it), US Lacrosse certified. They are certified by the Florida High School High School Athletic Association (FHSAA). What’s the difference, you ask? US Lax refs have a more stringent training program and annual certification. Unlike FHSAA, US Lax has levels of referees ranked by the amount of study they’ve done and their proficiency. FHSAA does not level their referees, nor is the study and training requirement as demanding. 

Economically, it is a simply equation. FHSAA certification costs less and does not require annual certifications that also cost money. It is also an easy path from, say, football referee to lacrosse official, allowing referees to make money in a season other than that of their main sport. Many parents and players complain that it seems that the referees have never played the game of lacrosse. And they are correct. Many have not. That in itself is not a deal-breaker. You don’t have to be a player to be a referee, but it helps. The bigger issue is that many of the referees do not have a passionate interest in the sport even on a spectator level. So, not only have they never played the game, they don’t watch it and really don’t understand it. That translates into poor understanding of the flow of play, the traditions of the sport, and the culture of the game. Simply put, lacrosse is nothing like football and lacrosse players are not simply football or soccer players with sticks. 

As for physics, we need to look at momentum. We’ve had years of the FHSAA-only refereeing, and the momentum of that trend is hard to overcome. Many of the refs have said they do not want to pay to get US Lax certified and will quit refereeing if there is a requirement for them to do so. 

HOW DO WE FIX IT?

If it was as easy to fix the problem of refereeing as it is to write (or complain) about it, we’d have solved the problem already. But it is a complex issue and will require a comprehensive and cooperative solution. 

First, the rec community (Sharks, Gorillas, Coyotes and Redskins and the overarching “governing” body, FLYLAX) has to form a united policy that simply states that we require our referees to meet the highest standards possible and that our games are officiated as professionally as possible. That is US Lacrosse certified. This is not an unprecedented demand. In fact, referees in the northern half of our US Lacrosse Gulf Coast Chapter are all required to be US Lacrosse certified. So should we. And we CAN use the concept of  “professional” without being inaccurate: the referees are paid and, therefore, are professional, and have to live up to expectations reasonable for their level of training. 

Admittedly, we can’t reasonably demand that referees be US Lacrosse certified instantly. Classes have to be scheduled and taken after a body of potential referees have been identified. And that is after the current referees are brought into the tent, so to speak, and given the chance to buy in to the plan--or choose not to.

So, second, we need to identify a pool of new referees and recruit them to a referee training class. As a board member of US Lacrosse’s Gulf Coast Chapter, I can attest to the seriousness of the Chapter’s plans to help make this as inexpensive and accessible as possible. 

While it would be wonderful to have all this happen overnight, it isn’t really reasonable. No amount of foot stamping and demanding will change the basic reality that referee classes cost money for the new referee. They are logistical beasts to put together--locations have to be secured, training refs need to be scheduled, and there has to be enough demand to make it worthwhile to do it. 

It is reasonable to give a three year deadline for ALL SWFL refs to be US Lax certified. During that time, all new refs should be required to go through all the US Lax officiating classes while existing referees can get their certifications in order.

NEW REFS?

That leaves the door open for lots of parents and players at the high school or college club level to decide to jump in with both feet! With two active rec programs in Lee County and one in Collier, the opportunities to officiate lacrosse are much greater than they were just a few years ago. And referees make between $50 and $75 per game. That’s decent extra cash for a parent and great spending money for a high schooler or college student. 

But, with our new crop of referees, we have a responsibility to make their jobs worth doing. Sideline etiquette is something that we, as a lacrosse community, need to think a LOT about before this coming rec season.

By the way, the answer to the slash to the head question seems to be best answered by the US Lacrosse certified referees in the northern half of our Chapter...it’s a slash. One minute. Releasable.


If you are interested in refereeing, please get in touch with Todd Shulz, President of Gorillas Lacrosse and cofounder of Ballistic Lacrosse. He is spearheading the move to make our local officiating better by advancing the move to US Lacrosse.