JJ Says: Officials deserve respect

I am not prejudiced. Some of my best friends have been sports officials. That is not as true as it once was when I knew almost all football and many baseball and basketball officials on a first-name basis.

Some of the best Saturdays I had when I was a young sports writer at the Argus-Courier back in the late 1970s and early ’80s were spent with football official friends in Tomales. The crew would work the game on a Saturday afternoon while I roamed the sidelines and enjoyed the best tri-tip sandwiches ever assembled at a snack shack.

After the game, we would gather at the William Tell Hotel for a post-mortem on the game, a long succession of historical anecdotes (long-winded stories) and world-affairs discussions. I learned more about officiating and football in one succession at the William Tell than I would learn in the rest of the season.

I am not as close to the officials these days, although I still know a few on a on a personal level, but I do respect them. They have the toughest job in all of sports.

I would like to say I have never criticized an official in print. That is not true. I have never used an official’s name in a critical manner in print, but I have, much to my miscredit, on rare occasions not only questioned, but out-right challenged an official’s call.

I was pretty harsh in my description of a play in a Petaluma vs. Analy football game a few years ago when a touchdown call on a last-second Analy pass potentially cost Petaluma a league championship. Still images of the play showed the receiver clearly down more than a yard from the end zone.

I was irate and said so in print.

It was Petaluma coach Rick Krist, in a phone conversation a day or so later, who brought perspective to the incident. He pointed out that one play or one call does not decide a game or a championship. Petaluma had ample opportunities to win the game long before the final play, which, in retrospect, was one great effort by Analy.

A few years earlier, I criticized officials for taking a crucial touchdown away from Petaluma following the recovery and return of a fumbled punt. Turns out, the officials were right. You cannot return a muffed punt.

Those incidents are rarities. Generally, I refrain from criticizing officials in any sport, although I do acknowledge an occasional sideline “No! No! No!” that inadvertently slips out.

Officials have a tough enough job to do without being critiqued by a reporter with one emergency game on his resume. That came behind the plate in a baseball scrimmage between Petaluma and Santa Rosa. The first three pitches went fine, the next was a curve ball that must have broke three-feet outside and was duly called a strike. I was behind the plate and badly missed the call, yet I routinely see parents emphatically call balls and strikes from 50-feet down the sidelines looking on at a 33-degree angle.

Of all the sports, basketball has to be the most difficult. With the whole world swirling at sprint speed, officials are expected to accurately ascertain what contact is allowed, what should be whistled and interpret a multitude of rules most fans don’t understand. I used to boo one of my official friends when he walked on the court, explaining that I was just helping him get warmed up prior to the game.

Gary Frieders, president of the Northern Coast Officials Association, said that as many as two-thirds of high school sports officials call it quits after one or two years, the main reason is the “blowback” from players, coaches and fans.

Officials are human. They make mistakes. Some are better at their jobs than others. But all do a tough job to the best of their abilities under difficult circumstances. They don’t expect applause or even a thank you, what they do deserve is respect.

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