Mark Fainaru-WadaESPN Staff WriterClose
- Investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise and Investigative Unit since 2007
- Co-author of New York Times best-selling books "League of Denial" and "Game of Shadows"
- Co-winner, 2004 George Polk Award
DUNCANVILLE, Texas -- It's a good 690 miles from Princeton, Ky., to Duncanville -- a relatively straight, if not always visually appetizing drive that takes you southwest through Memphis, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Texarkana, Texas, then on through downtown Dallas before you finally come to a stop on the outskirts of Big D. It's about a 10½-hour trek without stopping, but, of course, you have to stop at some point, at least for bathroom breaks and food.
The four grown men are now recounting their trip. They're resting in a hotel room for a short spell before they go to work at their "dream" jobs, the ones they hope will take them on the road to their Final Four -- whenever and wherever that might be. Asked where they ate, they all speak at once:
"Brown's Country Buffet."
"It was outside of Little Rock."
"Wasn't it outside of Little Rock?"
"Brown's Country Buffet is all I can remember."
"It was around Bryant, Ark."
"There was a big spread of whatever catfish, chicken, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese."
In the early morning hours Friday, they had arrived in Duncanville, a town with this most intriguing Wikipedia category, listed right after "Demographics" and "Education": "Reports of Alleged Paranormal Phenomenon." There is no Country Buffet here, but there is a Whataburger, which would become a staple for Ford Branch and his three buddies over the course of their three days here.
The men paired up and shared rooms at the local Hilton Garden Inn. They skipped a day from their real, better-paying jobs. They each paid $575 to be here. They each refereed two, sometimes three basketball games a day at an AAU tournament being held in Duncanville. And they did this while, in some cases, readily getting chewed out by other, more experienced officials, not to mention the coaches whose games they were calling.
Such is the glory of trying to make it big as a college basketball official. As the NCAA and its member conferences look to improve the quality of officiating throughout the country, they face the unending challenge of dealing with, well, amateurs. That is, all the officials at all the games throughout the country are independent contractors, freelancers who, in most cases, work regular, full-time jobs that can be counted on to pay their bills, feed their families, provide their medical benefits.
That's right, they're all moonlighting in the billion-dollar business that is college hoops -- a stark contrast to their counterparts in the pro leagues (NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL), who all are union employees, with full benefits and the kinds of salaries that can keep them from having to work a second job.
And so for Ford Branch, pharmaceutical salesman by day, college basketball official by night, his work as a referee provides him no guarantees. There are no benefits. There is no pension. There is no health plan. The average Division I ref might make $50,000 a year, if he can officiate 40 to 60 games a season, but that's before taxes -- and that earning power goes away the minute a guy is injured or sick or can't work for whatever reason.
"If I go down one night, we would be in trouble," Branch, who is married with two young children, said of the idea of working full-time as a referee. "I don't really want to have that pressure.
"I don't use this income as something to have to pay the bills. It's more of, you know, putting away for the kids for college and for vacations."
Branch is among 70 mostly young officials who came to Duncanville to be part of an officiating camp run by Curtis Shaw, a longtime NCAA referee who recently became the director of officials for a four-conference consortium led by the Big 12. The other leagues overseen by Shaw are Conference USA, the Ohio Valley and the Southland.
While some of the nation's top college coaches have gathered here to scout and woo some of the nation's top high school talent at an AAU event dubbed the Great American Shootout, Shaw and his camp counselors are doing their own evaluating, seeking up-and-comers with the talent to reach the top levels of college officiating.
"I'm here just to get on the floor and learn and improve, get critiqued and evaluated," Branch said. "And also networking, talking with guys and just kind of using the whole system there to step up the ladder to the next step."
Shaw spent 21 seasons refereeing Division I games, calling 18 NCAA tournaments and seven Final Fours. He knows the system, and he knows the challenges of maximizing quality while dealing with officials who are balancing entirely separate lives and jobs.
"It makes it difficult, and it's one of the aspects that we're looking at how we make that better," Shaw said. "It's my duty as a coordinator to try to handle all those situations as best as I possibly can. If I've got somebody who lives in western Kentucky, I can't realistically expect them to drive to south Florida to officiate a ballgame when I know they have to be at work the next day."
Asked whether he could envision a scenario with full-time officials, at least in the power conferences, Shaw said, "I just don't think it's feasible. I think the costs of employee benefits, the costs it would take to hire them away from their full-time jobs, I don't think that's out there."
Shaw and John Adams, the NCAA coordinator of men's basketball officiating, both indicated that one of the clearest challenges they face is an aging workforce trying to perform its duties in what is truly a young man's game, a game whose participants seem to get faster and stronger every year.
It's a fascinating contrast: 18-, 19-, 20-year-old young men, with ridiculous athletic ability and seemingly boundless stamina; and men who sometimes are in their 40s, 50s or even 60s trying to watch them closely, officiating in some cases as many as 80 to 100 games a season.
"The ideal official," Adams said, "would be a 35-year old guy that can run like a deer and that has 20 years experience, which would mean he would have to start at 15 and that's not happening. So here's what we have: 50-year-old professional athletes or older trying to work 75, 80, 90 games. We don't ask 22-year-old kids to work, to play 90 games a season. We ask them to play, if they go to the national championship, 36 or 37 games."
Said Shaw, lecturing at his camp: "You've got to be able to physically run up and down the floor. These kids stay the same age, and we get older every year. And some of the complaints I get from coaches aren't anything other than, 'Curtis, he couldn't get in position to see it.'"
Branch is 35 years old, and he has spent the past three years in the Division I ranks. He called 15 Ohio Valley Conference games last season, and he is hoping to build on that this season. Branch is in Duncanville, listening intently to Shaw and his counselors, because he has designs on working his way up the ladder, maybe reaching the Big 12 or another power conference that will pay him better and get him one step closer to the NCAA tournament.
A Kentucky graduate who loves college hoops, Branch endured that 10½-hour drive from eastern Kentucky and is missing his son's first all-star baseball games to be here. His boy is just 7, one of only three kids his age to make the all-star team.
"It hurts a little bit," Branch said. "I've been keeping in touch all weekend long."
Branch and his refereeing colleagues, all Memphians whom he picked up along the way to carpool, essentially share the same ultimate dream. Along with Branch, there's 29-year-old Kelly Davis, 28-year-old Rusty Phillips and 40-year-old Charles Jones. They have worked -- and continue to work -- basketball games in any or all of the following: high school, junior college, NAIA, Division II, and so on.
They're on the path, hoping to be seen and evaluated by someone like Shaw who can recommend or hire them to call games at higher levels. There are no prerequisites to becoming a college official, such as refereeing a minimum number of games or even earning a high school diploma; it's a word-of-mouth, evaluation-driven industry. And where does Branch hope it will lead? Center court, of course. Tossing the ball up. Lights flashing. Inside that big dome.
"The Final Four, the final game, the championship, I think that's everybody's dream," Branch said.
And so, after calling seven games in three days, Branch settled back behind the wheel of his Toyota Camry on Sunday afternoon for the long drive back to Princeton. His colleagues, similarly spent, took their places in the Camry and readied for their seven hours back to Memphis.
They cleaned out the Whataburger wrappers and whatever other detritus lingered. Kelly Davis, riding shotgun, insisted, "The car's doing well." He held up a little bottle, smiling: "We've got Febreze."
And then they were off. They had to be back for work on Monday.
Mark Fainaru-Wada is a reporter with ESPN's enterprise unit. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Landing one of the more than 300 coveted positions in the “big four” sports — Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League — is a rare feat. The jobs generally pay six-figure starting salaries and turnover is negligible; the National Hockey League, for instance, hired just one new referee last year. Major League Baseball just went on a veritable hiring binge, employing seven new umpires, but six of those jobs resulted from the expansion of instant replay and the anticipation of more challenges and reviews.
Despite the caveats, Mr. Mano says he believes that it has become more possible in the last 10 years to make a living — occasionally a lucrative one — officiating. He estimates that top basketball referees working National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I basketball games can make up to $250,000 in a season, though as independent contractors they must cover the costs of travel and health insurance. Though compensation varies depending on the college conference, baseball umpires working in Division 1 can earn about $400 a game and mileage, lodging and a modest per diem. Hockey referees earn up to about $400 for a Division I college game, linesmen about half as much. Football referees can make up to $3,000 for 60 regulation minutes, but they work the fewest games of the four sports.
But even officials working high school games “pick up some nice money — $8,000, $9,000” — in a season, Mr. Mano said. “You can’t live on it, but it sure beats a second job washing cars.”
Some sports, like wrestling, face a perpetual shortage of officials. Joe Altieri, spokesman for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, says the number of officials in his organization is relatively stagnant — and that concerns him. “We are aggressively seeking officials in high school sports in New York,” he said.
Ashlee Harrison of Norristown, Pa., a basketball referee, likes the work.
“Right now, it’s the best part-time job I’ve ever had,” said Ms. Harrison, 32, who jumped into officiating four years ago after coaching high school basketball. As with many new officials, at first she refereed games played by 12-year-olds for as little as $25; she now makes far more and sometimes works seven days a week at the women’s junior college and Division III levels.
“The games I drive to can be two, two and a half hours away,” said Ms. Harrison. “It’s literally an eight-hour day by the time you get back.” But she expects to consider officiating as a full-time job soon.
When Ms. Harrison is not working a game, she is probably working out. League executives demand that officiating recruits be in great physical shape, on top of requiring sharp vision (contact lenses are acceptable, but glasses could invite fan derision).
Mr. Martinez, for instance, runs at least two miles and spends about an hour in the gym five days a week. “You are out there for nine innings. You don’t sit at all — not one second — whereas the teams take a break between innings,” said Mr. Martinez, who says that umpires have “the toughest job in baseball.”
Joe Borgia, the N.B.A.’s vice president for referee operations, readily acknowledges that he uses weight to size up officiating prospects.
“The first thing you are looking for is someone who is athletic, who can run the court,” he said. If someone is “50 pounds overweight and can’t run,” Mr. Borgia says, he skips to the next ref.
To hunt for the strongest recruits, Stephen Walkom, the National Hockey League’s director of officiating, is organizing the league’s first officiating combine in Buffalo this summer to test prospective referees on and off the ice, as if they were players preparing for the draft. “We need athletes first,” said Mr. Walkom. Aside from strengthening their bodies, aspiring officials must develop their networking skills. Mr. Mano counsels new referees to join officiating associations to learn about local “assignors,” the talent coordinators who book officials for collegiate games.
Some assignors operate off-season camps, which Mr. Borgia likens to job fairs. Current or former pro officials also stage clinics to teach their craft (some call it an art) and informally scout new talent. Starting in April, Ms. Harrison plans to attend one program each month throughout the summer at a cost of $100 to $300 each. “You want people to know who you are,” she says.
Mr. Mano has thought about establishing “a good housekeeping seal of approval” for officiating camps. Some programs, he warns, “simply take your money because they are in a position of authority.” He urges officials shopping for a camp to conduct some research and interview former graduates.
While umpire seminars are popular, the pipeline to Major League Baseball starts at one of two professional schools in Florida. Both umpiring academies, which are in session from early January to early February, cost slightly less than $4,000 for tuition, meals and a shared room. The curriculum, explains Andy Shultz, administrator of the Umpire School in St. Petersburg, Fla., includes things as varied as how to properly put on a mask and techniques for breaking up bench-clearing brawls. In some ways, Mr. Shultz prefers inexperienced students: “What’s great about those guys is there’s no bad habits to break.”
What may not be coachable is “the ‘it’ factor” — defined by Mr. Borgia of the N.B.A. as a mix of confidence, decisiveness, discretion and accuracy.
“Judgment is a huge part of officiating,” agrees Edward G. Hochuli, a National Football League referee and arguably the only celebrity in stripes (case in point: the Ed Hochuli Fans Facebook page), who is known for his buff build (he played linebacker in college) and his on-field explanations of penalties.
Mr. Hochuli doubts whether prudence can be taught. “You can teach people to be in the right place and be looking at the right thing at the right time and anticipate what’s going to happen,” he said. “You ultimately make that judgment in a split second: Was that a foul or not a foul?”
To improve intangible skills, Mr. Hochuli recommends that raw officials mimic successful peers. “We spend an incredible amount of time studying rules. When your peers are doing that, you get dragged along. ‘Come on, we’re having a rules meeting tonight, come along.’ ”
When Joe Crawford, an N.B.A. referee who also operates the Next Level Referee Training camp near Philadelphia every June, appraises officials, he singles out “schmoozers,” who yammer during games.
“Who are the guys that are holding the ball over their faces and constantly talking to coaches?” asks Mr. Crawford. “We have a saying, ‘It’s the game, it’s the crew and then it’s me.’ If you start deviating from it, and you’re that schmoozer worrying about yourself, then the game suffers.”
Mr. Hochuli, who says he started officiating because “I could make 50 bucks on a Saturday morning working four Pop Warner football games — and I needed 50 bucks,” has witnessed his job brief, and salary, change since he entered the N.F.L. in 1990. “The compensation has certainly gone up,” he said. “When I started out, a 20-year official made 40-, 50,000 dollars. Now a 20-year official can make over $200,000.”
Emerging evidence that football players risk severe head trauma led to a recent class-action lawsuit by retired players who sustained concussions and brain injury. Though the settlement was rejected by a federal judge in January, the N.F.L. now provides its officials with better training about spotting the signs of a concussion.
“There’s just a much higher awareness of it now, and we are constantly reminded by the N.F.L.,” said Mr. Hochuli. After a highlight-worthy collision, Mr. Hochuli said, he will get in a player’s “face, look at him, get him to talk to me. Twenty-four years ago, I didn’t think to do that. Twenty-four years ago, it would have to jump out at me.”
Dean Blandino, the N.F.L.’s vice president for officiating, described referees as “first responders” on the field. In “the last couple of years,” he says, the N.F.L.’s medical staff and Head, Neck and Spine Committee brief officials before the season about recognizing players in distress. “What we are telling our officials,” said Mr. Blandino, “is to basically stop the game and get the attention of the medical staff on the sidelines.”
The emergence of instant replay has both eased and complicated an official’s responsibilities. Replay enables officials to narrow their focus at critical junctures in a game. Mr. Borgia offers an example: A basketball player takes a three-point shot at the end of a period. Before replay existed, Mr. Borgia simultaneously tried to watch the player’s feet (to make sure they were outside the three-point line), the defender (to detect any rule-breaking contact with the shooter) and the game clock (to see if the shooter beat the buzzer). “You can now mainly cut your focus to one thing: Did he foul him or not?” Mr. Borgia said.
Instant replay also lets sports channels repeatedly highlight — and mock — blown calls. Mr. Hochuli said that earlier in his career he officiated games covered by just three television cameras. Now, he says, as many as 64 cameras scour the field. “There are so many cameras looking at everything that you do, if you ever make a mistake — to the boss, or the N.F.L., or the fans or the announcers — you’re not going to get away with anything,” he said.
His boss, Mr. Blandino, notes that social media and officiating blogs intensify the spotlight on the profession. “The attention is more than it’s ever been.”
The scrutiny and the screamed performance reviews from players, fans and coaches can sometimes rattle even experienced officials. “Nobody is out there yelling, ‘Great call, ref. Way to run, ref,’ ” jokes Mr. Borgia. “There’s like a 30 percent turnover in the first year of any officiating because of all the abuse. What we try to say is, ‘They don’t hate you; they hate your uniform.’ ”
Mr. Martinez, the former math teacher, is confident that his experience with unruly high school students has prepared him for abuse on the field. Adolescents, he observes, “are really sassy, and they try to provoke you. They try to get you to say things and do things so that they can try to get you in trouble.”
He will soon have the opportunity to display his cool in the heat of a professional baseball game. Last month, he accepted a job as an umpire in the lowest rung on the professional baseball ladder.
“I’m still floating,” Mr. Martinez says. He recalls routinely lecturing his students to follow their dreams, and now, he says, “My dream is becoming a reality.”Continue reading the main story