This is why officiating is a mess

May, 7, 2013
5/07/13
5:45
PM ET
In his Tuesday Daily Word, my esteemed colleague (and noted triathlete) Andy Katz provided an update on the state of Pac-12 officiating in the wake of the Ed Rush scandal. The conference hired an outside counsel (Ice Miller attorney Stu Brown) to complete an independent investigation of the Rush incident, due by June, that it hopes will put a definitive end to the distrust created among the league's fans -- particularly Arizona fans -- thanks to Rush's silly $5,000 or Cancun "joke."

But the Pac-12's coaches are already moving on. Their biggest concern isn't the possibility of a complete existential officiating crisis in which fans begin to think every call has an ulterior motive, if they don't already. Instead, their biggest worry is ... wait for it ... finding officials in the first place:
According to a number of coaches who were in the room [at the Pac-12 league meetings last week], the overall sentiment was that the league needs more elite officials.

"We expressed a sense of urgency,'' Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said. "Officials are starting to contract for their schedules and commitments with different leagues pretty early. We want someone who is well-liked, who is a good magnet for top officials and that can run the program effectively.'' [...]

"The general tone is to attract more lead officials,'' Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "I don't care what league you're talking about it, it's the same guys on the same nights. And because of our geographic location, it makes it challenging. We want to get someone who can attract more quality to work our league. The ones we have are very good.''

Those quotes almost sound like hoops fans on a message board. "See, what our program league needs in its coach officials coordinator is someone who can convince all of that top officiating talent to come out west. We have to recruit better!" And they're right. The Pac-12 should consider as among its priorities hiring the best officiating talent it can. The fact that the Pac-12 has to do this in the first place is what's so royally mucked up.

As is, officials are independent contractors. This arrangement allows NCAA member institutions to avoid paying for officials' health insurance or other benefits, and many officials work their games as a second, seasonal source of income. Officials themselves are essentially free to figure out their own schedules, to work the games they want to work at the times and in the leagues they want to work them. Some officials take too many games, or schedule long road trips with little chance for rest. Some work games in multiple leagues. And why not? You're an independent contractor. More jobs means more money.

It's all very loosely organized. There is an NCAA officiating coordinator, John Adams, who sets the national agenda at the start of the season and tracks official performance (and has done his level best to make sure the same game is called the same from sea to shining sea) but his direct authority is minimal, and he doesn't schedule. There's no real centralized authority, which is how we get to the place where a league like the Pac-12 is openly pining for an officials coordinator that can recruit more "elite" officials to work its games. This is not a good place to be.

When Rick Pitino talks about the way referees can help make the college game great again, he cites the NBA's example. By the late 1990s, the league got too slow and too rough. So it changed its rules, its officials implemented them, and now it's better. But the NBA was only able to do that because of its fully professionalized corp of referees recruited, trained, developed and constantly critiqued by NBA operations personnel, and even then it took a number of years. It's hard to see how the NCAA, with so many more teams and leagues and styles of play, could even begin to attempt something so systemic without some structure.

That's exactly what college officiating needs. It needs a centralized authority that recruits, trains, develops and schedules officials throughout Division I. It needs to put those refs on salary. Whatever that costs. It's even less prohibitive when you consider the upsides of entertaining, consistent basketball. Maybe the high-major conferences can kick an extra couple of million into the coffer themselves. Totally worth it.

At best, it would revolutionize the way the college game is called and played. At less-best, it would deliver a more consistent, less frustrating product. At worst, it would make sure the Pac-12 coaches didn't have to worry about recruiting decent referees. Any of these realities would be an improvement over our own.

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