An Official’s Official

With all the ruckus over the replacement refs the past few weeks, thought I’d show another viewpoint. Mike and I have felt bad for the replacements. I’m sure most were men just trying to do their best, but thrown into a situation where they couldn’t win no matter what they did. Even the real NFL refs make mistakes.

Mike’s cousin, Ronnie Phillips, was a Sports Official. Capital S, capital O. He did it all — baseball, softball, football and basketball.

The life of a sports official isn’t easy. These people give up their nights and weekends catering to aspiring athletes of all ages — school teams, kids in youth leagues just learning to play, leagues out for a good time, and others who honestly believe they are every bit as good as Michael Jordan or A-Rod. It’s just that the ref or umpire is always making the wrong calls.

I’ve watched Ronnie call men’s basketball games and take the abuse from players and from those in the stands.

“You’re just making up calls.”

“Are you blind? Come on!”

“Hey, stupid, don’t you know the difference in a charge and a block?”

Ronnie could tune all that out. “You learn to let it go. When you take it personal, you do something stupid in the heat of the moment,” he told me.

His patience had an end though. Ronnie had a reputation among the players and other officials for not putting up with smart-mouthed players or fans. He didn’t hesitate to eject them. No yelling back and forth, just a look, then the thumb signaling ejection. At the annual picnic for the North Central Texas Officials’ Association, one of the “unofficial” awards given out was the Ronnie Phillips Award for the ump with the fastest thumb, or the one who didn’t mind ejecting troublemakers. In spite of the kidding, Ronnie was a respected official among coaches and his fellow umpires.

Out of all the sports and leagues he officiated, without blinking he told me parents of youth leagues were the worst people to deal with. “They cuss us all the way to the parking lot. Parents sit behind the backstop at all different angles and think they can see better than the umpire right behind the plate.”

Ronnie started umpiring softball in 1967, then progressed to other sports. Why did he get into officiating? Why did he stay with it? Why go back night after night to insults and abuse?

“The money!” he told me, then laughed. “No, you can’t do this for the money. You stay because you love the sport. It’s a personal thing. I’m contributing something to the game, and as long as I can hustle, I’ll be there.”

If you were an impartial observer in a youth game, you could see his love for the game and his desire to teach kids to play right.

It’s a Saturday night in the Southside Girls’ Club in Wichita Falls. The bleachers are filled with parents. In 10-and-under-girls, the Shooting Stars in hot pink shirts and the red-shirted Red Hots were scrambling to get the ball to the basket.

Little number 12 for the Shooting Stars carefully steps and dribbles the ball. She’s got her tongue out of her mouth at just the right angle. As she gets close to the sideline, her coach yells something at her. She looks up at him, and tries to keep dribbling, but a Red Hot steals the ball away. The Red Hot dribbles the ball down court and lobs it up over the board. As the play goes on, Ronnie blows the whistle.

“No, no, no! That’s a double dribble. You can’t do that,” he tells the little girl, gently shaking his head at her.

A minute later, be blows the whistle again. “No! That’s walking. You can’t do that,” and he explains it to her.

After the half, he blows the whistle and points the confused Red Hots in the direction of their new goal. The Red Hots won by a whopping 10-6.

Next up were the Dribblin’ Darlins and the Hot Shots. By the first 6-minute period, the score was 13-0, Hot Shots.

From the stands, parents were blaming the refs. “The refs are killing you,” parents yelled at the girls. Of course, the Dribblin’ parents have to blame someone because the little girls can’t get the ball in the basket, and who better than the ref?

Ronnie was killed by an accidental gunshot wound several years ago, but his dedication to his favorite sport, baseball, was honored with a plaque at Hoskins Field in Wichita Falls.

Not all officials are like Ronnie, or like another good official I know — Mike Floyd — but most try their best. Just remember to support your local sports official. They’re doing the best job they know how.

First published March 4, 2004, in The Journal of North Texas, “Life with Mike” column

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