Losing my cool

I don’t yell much during games. In fact, sometimes I have to artificially generate indignation toward referees. Mainly, that happens when I think the other coach is influencing the officials and I need to counteract it, or when the officials miss such an obvious call I just have to highlight it so they are more likely to give us a make-up call later. Beyond those specific scenarios, I know referees are human, so I am not surprised when they make mistakes.

Last week, I surprised myself by going onto the field and berating both referees for an extended period in front of both teams and the fans. The best part is, I wasn’t even coaching at the time.

Here’s the background.

We don’t really have an established league all our teams are in. Right now I mix and match depending on the team and sport, and none of our current options are great. We have flag football in the fall, and they compete in the charter league. The league has all sorts of flaws, one of which is prioritizing collecting revenue and not particularly caring about the product. This is manifested, among other categories, in the quality of referees they provide.

Our first home game this fall, we only had one official show up and it was thirty minutes after the game was scheduled to start. I reffed the first half of the middle school game so we could stay on schedule and not run out of daylight for the high school game afterward (I keep a referee shirt in my office for situations like this). It wasn’t a division game, I’ve done this several times before, and I had another coach helping me, so it went smoothly.

In the high school game, it was a close, back-and-forth contest. Late in the game, we scored a touchdown to go up eight points, and lined up for an extra point attempt from the five-yard line (there are no field goals in flag football; you go for one from the five, or for two from the twelve). Our senior quarterback ran it in for the score, and we went up nine. The official waved it off, calling it no-good, as you are not allowed to rush within the five-yard line (for safety reasons). The problem is, the rules specifically state you ARE allowed to rush from the five-yard line during an extra point. The ref didn’t know the rules, on top of showing up late without a partner. I addressed the situation, we ended up getting the extra point, and we won 37-36.

Fast forward to last week. Both officials showed up on time, and I’m in the stands watching. We’re up eight points after giving up a touchdown, and the other team is going for a two-point conversion in the second half. Their quarterback drops back to pass, throws a fade, and it’s intercepted! Our freshman defensive back takes off down the field with no one between him and the end zone and only the (clearly slower) quarterback in pursuit. *whistle*

The play is blown dead.

Only problem is, it shouldn’t have been. We can return that interception for two points of our own, and a 10-point (two score!) lead late in the game.

I was fired up. This was beyond referees making a bad call. This was referees simply not caring enough to know the rules, and flaunting their ignorance in a high-leverage situation that could potentially cause us to lose a game and a playoff spot. I got up and ran around the edge of the field (not across it, let the record show), then walked on the field to get the refs attention. I wasn’t yelling, but I was assertive, and long-winded. They didn’t know the rules, and I wanted those two points.

They didn’t give them to us, which was the right call on their part. You can’t blow a play dead then imagine what would have happened, even if the outcome looked obvious. I never thought they would change the call or the score, but I basically decided if the league wasn’t going to hold them accountable, then I was. It is my responsibility as the athletic director to advocate for our teams and players, and in this case that meant embarrassing the referees in front of everyone. Next time they officiate a game on our field, they are going to know the rules.

We won the game, and after it was over, the conversation continued. They were mad at me for embarrassing them, and I was still mad at them for not knowing the rules (which are less than ten pages total). During that conversation, I asked them what would have happened if the opposite situation had happened later, once the rules had been clarified. They said they would have blown the play dead again, thinking that response would placate me, and they were wrong. If you don’t know the rules, make a bad call, then learn the rules, you should still officiate the game according to the rules – regardless of your past calls.

With some time to reflect, I wouldn’t change how I reacted. It was a weird experience, feeling all that passion in the moment and riding it with only a loose hold on the reins, but I was never out of control. I could have waited until after the game for the confrontation, but 1) I would’ve been too calm to be effective, 2) I wouldn’t have had any chance to get us those two points we deserved, and 3) publicly calling them out was kind of the whole point. Afterward, I had a brief interaction with the opposing coaches where they expressed solidarity with my choice to interfere. We aren’t the only school frustrated by the league referees.

All in all, it took a perfect storm to draw that reaction from me. Longstanding frustration, recent evidence of mediocrity that could have hurt our team directly, followed up by another game-changing ignorant call. To me, there is an enormous difference between making a bad call in a big moment and simply not knowing the rules. This is your job. You are getting paid. Take some pride in your work, instead of affecting kids lives negatively with your apathy. From my perspective, having officials who don’t know the rules undermines the spirit of competition at the deepest level. What is the point of practicing, of strategizing, of counting wins and losses and crowning champions, if the contests are going to be officiated by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing?

In P.E. I ask my students what the most sacred rule of competition is. They typically say things like don’t cheat, have fun, and so on. No. The most sacred rule is this: You play to win the game. I think, ultimately, that’s what made me snap. To me, disrespecting competition is sacrilegious, and those referees were blasphemers brought to justice.

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