Q: Tell me what you do.
A: I referee for public school basketball and club soccer. It’s a year-round thing.
I’ve officiated everything from high school varsity to 5-6 year olds.
Q: What’s it like officiating little kids’ games?
A: I end up doing as much coaching as refereeing. Instead of calling a kid for traveling, I’ll take him to the side and say, “Timmy, you can’t run with the ball. You have to bounce it with one hand, and when you pick it up, you have to pass it or shoot it, not run with it,” and then I give him the ball back.
And I do that incessantly over the season and hopefully by the end they have learned some things.
Q: Do you have to deal with parents who are a pain?
A: I see more of that in soccer, because it’s club soccer, which means the parents paid good money to put their kid on a fancy team. There is a larger investment, so there is a larger incentive to yell at me.
Club soccer parents can be as vicious as they want to be, and they are. And you see it with surprisingly little kids—like 7 and 8 year olds.
In basketball at Chicago public schools it happens significantly less because the principal or other school official makes it clear that if anyone has a problem with me he will absolutely ruin their life.
One time before a game the principal went to the middle of the court and said, “This is Mr. O’Connell. He came all the way from Hyde Park to ref this game and I don’t want anyone to say anything to him. If you do, you can never come to another game again.”
Q: If he didn’t do that, parents might get hostile?
A: Yeah. One time after a game I was waiting at a bus stop and a parent came by and said, “Thanks for cheating for the other team. We don’t want you to come back here.”
Q: Nice. What did you do?
A: I said, “I did my best during the game and I’m sorry you didn’t like it.” Fortunately he just walked away.
Q: Have you ever had to kick someone out?
A: I’ve never removed someone, fortunately. But my partner did. I expect that as I continue to improve it will happen.
They give you your check before the game so if you have to, you can throw the parent out or you can put the ball down and leave.
Q: Do the players ever get mad at you?
A: Yeah. I was recently refereeing an intramural game between School of Social Service Administration grad students and law students, and one of the future social workers, who was upset with a non-call, yelled, “Call a foul, you pussy-ass n*****!” right in my face, which is probably the most adventurous thing a person has ever said to me during a game.
Q: Wow. In hindsight, should you have made the call?
A: I’m pretty confident I got that one right. He was upset he had missed an easy layup, and wasn’t playing well generally. The defense was good and clean. In retrospect, I should have thrown him out of the game, but there was a pretty wide margin between the teams, and only a couple of minutes left, so I decided a confrontation wasn’t worth it.
Q: Have you made a wrong call that you had to uphold, even though you knew it was wrong?
A: Yeah, especially when I was starting out.
I had one basketball game that was an absolute disaster. I made bad call after bad call after bad call. It got so bad—at one point I saw the ball bounce off this team and go out and I gave the ball right back to them. But you have to stick with it, unless you have a partner who can come review it with you. I was hearing it from the coaches that day.
Sometimes you get it in your head and you start feeling for the team. You start watching what’s happening or feeling the game instead of calling it. I think I’m a better referee of basketball because I don’t like it as much as I like soccer.
Q: If you’re watching a game on TV, can you tell if the ref makes a bad call?
A: I can tell when a referee is out of position. It’s harder to tell with soccer. In basketball it’s very set, but in soccer it’s just general guidelines and it’s much more subjective.
The guidelines for soccer used to say, “If, in the opinion of the referee…” but now it lays out what is what. But it’s still based on what the referee feels. Soccer is a much more fluid game that way.
Q: How well do you feel like you know the rules?
A: With basketball and soccer I know all the rules. Whether I’ll apply them accurately 100% is another issue. I re-read the rulebook regularly though.
Q: Are there any rules that most people aren’t aware of?
A: In basketball you’re really not allowed to put your hands in another player’s face. Putting your hands in front of their eyes is really a technical foul. I called a guy once for a technical foul and he was surprised. Coaches say all the time, “Put your hands in his face,” but they can’t really mean it.
Q: Do you think you could ever ref for the NBA?
A: It would be incredible to referee the NBA but I don’t think I’ll ever be good enough. There are so few openings—fewer for referees than for players—and they retire way less frequently. You can be extremely good and never make it to the NBA.