According to leaders within the referee world, game officials at every basketball level are dropping out and it’s created havoc even right here in North Texas
Now, the Mavs Academy, leaning on the support of the NBA, is stepping in to lend assistance in hopes of providing moral support for these men and women, along with continuing education in a modern basketball world.
Talking about it isn’t enough, said Brad Freeman, who is the director of youth basketball with the Dallas Mavericks. He said NBA teams like the Mavericks must take tangible strides to bridge the gap with officials and partner with the league to actually create programs and opportunities for them.
“We do know that there is a referee shortage,” said Freeman, who is a former high school basketball coach and father of a collegiate hoops coach.
“For many years I have felt like this is an area of the game that needs some focus,” he said. “Not just referees getting better, but also encouraging players, coaches and parents to show more respect for the game by treating referees the right way. The NBA has identified that, which is the reason for their grassroots program.”
Officials cite an array of reasons that referees are leaving the game, from health and safety concerns, to work-life balance, to abuse from fans and coaches – and many referees said they are just barely hanging on by a thread unless something major changes.
For this reason, Wednesday night the Mavs Academy hosted its first ‘Referee Virtual Roundtable,’ aimed at providing support and outreach to basketball officials at every level.
The event was backed by major supporters like Chick-fil-A DFW, Nike, Scottish Rite For Children and UT-Southwestern Pediatric Group.
Leaders on the call empathized with the young referees and also praised their perseverance for sticking with the game even against the odds.
“This is the first known event of its kind,” said Greg Nared, senior vice president of the Dallas Mavericks. “We want to learn from you, we feel like we have the platform being an NBA team, and we want to help you become a better official. Our area of focus is safety, training and retaining officials, adding more female officials, and then growth in preparing you for the next level.”
Nearly 50 local referees from high schools and small colleges attended the Mavs’ virtual referee roundtable that posed this question for attendees: “Why are officials dropping out and how can we help with retention?”
In a Zoom chat, basketball officials pondered the questions and the responses poured in.
“I think some officials are quitting because the reward/pay isn’t worth the risk to them,” said one female basketball official. Another echoed the woman’s sentiment with a clear and concise answer: “compensation vs. safety,” he wrote.
Many other game officials noted that the verbal abuse from the crowd, coaches and players is just too much for any person. One referee even came up with a great solution: “I think a way to fix this is having coaches referee basketball games during their off-season to get a different perspective.”
Another major point of contention is rule interpretation.
“Officials and coaches get into arguments many times over rule interpretations,” wrote attendee Colton Ngumoha. “I think coaches should have to take a basic rules test in order to eliminate many of those heated exchanges.”
All of these answers are viable concerns, said longtime NBA official Gary Zielinski, who made a special appearance Wednesday night for the Mavs Academy’s virtual referee roundtable.
Zielinski was an NBA referee for 18 years, officiating more than 1,000 regular season games with some of the greatest legends to ever play the game, before the league named him the Youth & Amateur Officiating Development Lead nearly two years ago.
In his new role, he provides guidance and training regarding playing rules and officiating career opportunities to amateur players, coaches and officials, with a specific focus on youth. In addition, just like an NBA scout in basketball, he helps identify candidates for introduction into the referee scouting pipeline.
He started the call by empathizing and acknowledging the unique challenges that game officials face right now and shared how even NBA referees are enduring a whole new world.
“They have to be in the city 52 hours before the game,” Zielinski said. “Every morning they have to get on an app and answer questions about COVID. Then they go and get tested at the team facility. They come back and have to go into their hotel room and can’t leave their hotel room. Then they have to go to the game by themselves. They can’t go with the crew anymore. When they get to the locker room, they have to wear their masks and stay 6 to 10 feet apart.”
Zielinski said NBA officials keep on their masks until the game starts and then they use a whistle cap “that stops all the spit from coming out of the whistle.”
After the game, the officials no longer get any food and many of them don’t even shower. They head back to the hotel alone and start the grind all over again.
“Sometimes they have to get to a city five days prior if there’s some kind of problem,” he added. “So I feel for all of you that are working in this.”
He said it’s becoming the norm that some officials are working the same NBA games, sometimes three times in a row, because it limits referees’ traveling.
Zielinski also noted that some NBA games might even have a two-person crew because an official might receive a call before the game that “their son or daughter tested positive for COVID-19, so they can’t referee. They have to go back to the hotel and quarantine, so then you see two officials.”
After giving the young game officials insight into the professional ranks, Zielinski then reminded the virtual attendees that they, too, can one day rise to the NBA, WNBA or G League.
He gave practical steps for the attendees to improve their officiating, like studying film from their games or assigning fellow game officials to provide critique of their officiating. Zielinski also noted the importance of organizations like the Dallas Mavericks and the Mavs Academy’s desire to provide support for game officials.
“It’s great to have an organization that’s looking out for the referees,” said Zielinski. “We’re all together in this game.”
Freeman agreed with Zielinski’s thoughts and said the Mavs Academy also wants to set the right culture in youth basketball.
“We won’t always agree, so how do we disagree?” Freeman noted. “It’s important for us to focus on providing our youth with a safe, healthy and fair culture where we model for them how everyone (parents, coaches, players and officials) can learn from their mistakes and get better rather than drop out. The Mavs Academy wants to have a positive impact with all four groups.”
Freeman also said that Wednesday night’s event was just the first of several planned “Speakers Series” events throughout the season.
Each Speaker Series will focus on different groups in the community between now and the summer.
Next up is an event aimed at celebrating the game with the “Mini Mavs,” a group of boys and girls between the ages of 4-7. Next Saturday, Feb. 6, the Mavs Academy will host a virtual pep rally for the youngsters with a special appearance from the team mascots. Other events later on in the season will target older players and parents.
To learn more about the Mavs Academy and join some of these exciting programs, click here.
Q: How did the Mavericks first become involved with referees? What’s the back story?
COACH FREEMAN: As far as I know there is no history of the Mavericks working with local referees outside of finding referees for tournaments prior to me coming on staff. For many years I have felt like this is an area of the game that needs some focus. Not just referees getting better, but also encouraging players, coaches and parents to show more respect for the game by treating referees the right way. We do know that there is a referee shortage. The NBA has identified that, which is the reason for their grassroots program. They feel like identifying and training officials at the lower levels will in turn help them have a larger pool of officials to choose from for NBA games. In May of 2019 when I first joined the staff, the Jr. NBA Conference in Chicago had a segment on basketball officials and this grassroots program. I spoke to Gary Zielinski at that conference and told him about some of the things we wanted to do as a Mavericks organization. I had already been talking to Marvin Timmons (who helped organize this virtual event and was on the call) about programs for basketball officials. We used Marvin and some of these officials for our last Youth Combine. The officials did some separate training sessions during the combine along with officiating our 3-on-3 and 5-on-5 segments. However, this virtual event was really the first step towards a more formalized initiative.
Q: How did the referees on the call last night know to join? Who are these referees? If someone is reading this story who happens to be a referee but isn’t involved with MBA, how can they become involved?
COACH FREEMAN: Great question. There are four local referee chapters in the DFW Metroplex that supply referees to high school games. We reached out to the leadership in each of those chapters and asked them to identify those officials that have shown they have the ability and aspirations of moving up to college and potentially the NBA. They each sent me a list and I sent invites to those referees. The referees on the call last night are all high school and small college referees that live here in the DFW Metroplex. There were many that couldn’t join because they were working games last night. We will supply those referees with the recording of this event. As far as how to become involved, for now, they can email me. For information on the NBA “Path to Officiating in the NBA, WNBA and G League” they can go to https://official.nba.com/ then go to “Officials” and then “Officiating Opportunities.” Our goal in the future is to have a page on our website with information for them with links to resources and opportunities.
Share and comment