Discontent with high school basketball officials is as old as Hoosier Hysteria itself.
In 1927, the coach at tiny Somerset was so steamed at the officials that he pulled his team off the court during a game against Swayzee and took a forfeit. The Indiana High School Athletic Association put both teams on probation.
In 1938, IndyStar sports editor W. Blaine Patton wrote the elimination of the center jump had caused officiating to become worse than ever. They couldn’t keep up with the “speedball” game. Patton recommended officials be able to call a timeout when necessary “to catch up with their wind.”
It’s nothing new. Second-guessing is part of the job for officials. But there is increasing concern that the verbal abuse of officials – in some cases, physical abuse – is worse than it’s ever been.
With the state finals on Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, IndyStar Preps Insider Kyle Neddenriep sat down with two officials to discuss the relationship between officials and fans, coaches and players. Ken Washam, 44, is a veteran who worked multiple tournament games, including the Warsaw-McCutcheon semistate last week. Derek Etherington, 26, is looking to work his way up to become a college official.
Question: Have you ever been physically threatened by a fan?
Washam: Not in a high school game. It was actually a pee-wee football game. It was an ‘I’ll kick your (butt)’ type of thing. In a high school game, you put blinders on. You hear the ‘You suck’ comments and all that. The part I don’t like is, ‘you.’ I don’t go to your job and tell you that you suck. If you say a call sucks, that’s one thing. But if you keeping going and going with the ‘You suck’ stuff, that’s another thing. I’ve thrown two fans out this year, one at Logansport and one at Marion.
Q: What happened?
Washam: We were walking on the floor at Marion and the guy yelled, ‘Is this the best we can get?’ The game hadn’t even started yet. I said, ‘Wow, that’s early.’ He kept saying stuff and saying stuff and I finally said, ‘You’re gone.’ At Logansport, the guy kept yelling at my partner and I finally threw him out. Later in the season I was there again and the guy yelled, ‘Hey, do you remember me?’ I said, ‘I do. How are you?’ That was pretty funny.
Q: When does a coach cross the line from a verbal standpoint?
Etherington: There’s been times where I feel like they question my integrity. ‘What are you doing to me?’ Sometimes you have to take a step back and say, ‘Coach, I’m calling the game by the rules.’ You also need to understand where the coach is coming from. I try to take the position of, ‘What has led up to this point?’ You don’t want to be the bad guy and ‘T’ up a coach who never says anything to officials and had just questioned three plays that went against him.
Washam: A lot of it depends on if I feel like I’ve missed the call. I’ll give him a little more leash. But if we go up and down the court two or three times and he’s still yapping, I’ll tell him he has to let it go. Then I’ll give the stop sign and tell him I’m done. That tells everybody the coach has been warned.
Q: How often does a coach ever make it personal?
Washam: I feel like integrity gets questioned a lot. I had a game this year where the ball went off a kid’s knee and out of bounds. I’m right in front of the coach and he looked at the kids and said, ‘You know he’s not going to make that call for us.’ I’m like, ‘Coach, I’m right here.’ He’s like, ‘Well, you aren’t going to call that foul for us.’ He’s basically telling me I’m cheating. Why would you do that? It teaches kids to question us, like we aren’t going to help them.
Q: Do you admit when you get one wrong? Do you tell the coach?
Etherington: You get one a game. I’m the last person to say all my calls are right. You aren’t going to get them all right.
Washam: You have to be careful with it. If I do three or four games a week, I may say it once or twice. But I’ll do a fork in the road and say, ‘My angle, I thought he fouled him. Did you have a better angle than I did?’ I’m saying maybe I screwed up, but not saying I missed it.
Q: What are the biggest misconceptions from fans about officials?
Washam: I think they think that we don’t care. That we just come out and do the game and go home and never think about it. We do. I watch videos of my games to pick out certain plays to watch again. I’m getting older now, but I have younger guys call or text to talk about certain situations and want input. They care. I don’t think coaches or fans see that or know that.
Etherington: It’s kind of the nature of the man in the uniform. It’s why people hate when police officers pull them over for getting a ticket. You’re thankful they are out there doing their job as long as you aren’t the one getting punished.
Q: Are there certain calls that fans or coaches don’t understand more than others?
Etherington: Over the back (fouls) are one. A foul requires contact.
Washam: I had a coach this year complain that the fouls were eight to one. I said, ‘You’re playing man-to-man and pressing full-court and they are playing zone. I’ll ask the other coach and see if he wants to switch the score with you. He’ll go up 10 points and you’ll get the foul count.’ He didn’t go for that.
Q: Other than a way to supplement income, what you do get most out of officiating?
Etherington: For me, it’s the opportunity to stay within the lines of the court. I was involved in public address announcing and radio broadcasting as a teenager. It gives you an opportunity to stay involved. There’s also the camaraderie of other officials. You meet somebody who also officiates and you immediately have that bond.
Q: What do you learn with experience?
Washam: A lot of refereeing is about feel. I do a lot of preventative officiating. If a player says something, I’ll go to the coach and say, ‘Hey No. 12 smarted off to me. I need you to help.’ It’s sort of like a run during a game. You can feel when things are starting to go south.
Q: Are officials treated better or worse now than when you first started?
Washam: I hear more now than when I started. I don’t know if it’s entitlement that ‘I paid my five bucks and I’m going to say what I want,’ or what. It has progressed, though. I hear more abuse directed at officials than ever before.
Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.