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Officially There

By Courtesy of Maggie Tieman
By Anita J Joseph, Crimson Staff Writer

When people ask Edward C. Meier what it takes to be a referee in his conference, he gives them a parable. Meier is the Ivy League’s coordinator of women’s basketball officials, and it is his judgement that will make or break an official’s career.

“Imagine you’re in a crowded gym,” he said. “It’s so raucous, so loud, that when you blow your whistle you can barely hear it. You’re in that game and there’s three seconds left in the game, and a foul is called. The crowd roars. To your left is a coach who is irate and gesturing. To your right is a coach who is irate and gesturing. Well, one of the officials, seeing this immediately bends down and ties their shoes. Another official says, ‘let me go dry off the basketball.’ The person who goes over to the coaches, with their chin up, shoulders back, is the Ivy League official.”

These officials are an invisible part of the game—seeing plays but not disrupting them, anticipating and defusing conflicts between players and coaches.

For female officials in the Ivy League, the context of their job is even more complicated, as many juggle multiple roles. During the game they are the black-and-white shirt who made a controversial call late in the fourth quarter, but afterward they are mothers who rush home to tuck their kids in at night and are office employees who arrive at work at 9 a.m. after a night of exhilarating play.

Also, since there are no female officials in men’s Ivy League basketball, female referees bring a gender aspect to the women’s game. In this sense, officiating is a way to strengthen the lineage of the comparatively young sport of women’s basketball—the full-court game was not adopted until 1971, and the first woman was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1985.

While officiating has a lot of positive attributes, few people spend their childhood dreaming of being a referee.

In the case of Geraldine Smith, who referees in the Ivy League, several other Division I conferences, and the NBA Development League, she fell into it upon the suggestion of a veteran official.

“I was playing golf one day, and somebody I was playing with was an official,” Smith said. “He said I looked like I used to play basketball and asked me if I had ever thought about refereeing. I then got hooked.”

The roots of this devotion are deep in student athletics. Smith, for example, averaged 18 points a game at Seton Hall and is a member of the University’s Hall of Fame. Maggie Tieman, another female official, was recruited to the University of Vermont for basketball, ended up playing softball, and now works as a health and wellness teacher and coach at Lewis Mills High School.

Yet, in order to go from player to becoming an official, and not to being a coach or merely a basketball parent, one has to have something extra, a certain love for exacting certitude and order from difficult situations.

“I’m a really black-and-white person to begin with, no pun intended,” Tieman said. “Officiating really gels with that. Either a foul or it’s not. Either it’s out of bounds or in bounds.”

Meanwhile, developing the skill and endurance of a top official requires an extraordinary amount of behind-the-scenes effort. All referees in college basketball have one-year contracts, and they work under constant awareness of the annual review.

The NCAA pushes this feedback loop even harder. After each game, the league sends referees a DVD of their performance. They are expected to watch it and break down their calls and positions. Why was a wrong call made? How could a situation have been defused more quickly? Additionally, officials must attend an annual rules clinic where they must pass a test on their knowledge of standard basketball guidelines. Throughout the year they also take quizzes based on plays that happened that season.

“The scrutiny is pretty intense,” Meier admitted.

Most importantly, they attend summer camps where they are watched and evaluated by veteran officials from different Division I conferences. Just as an invitation to a major camp is a way for promising basketball players to be seen by influential coaches and scouts, these summer camps are also strategic opportunities for promising referees.

Meier is one of the scouts in the stands at these camps. He says he travels 15 to 25 days a month during the summer, seeing close to 500 officials. If he likes someone’s calls and demeanor on the court he will ask for their resume and speak to a coordinator in their current league. And then, come August, official number 27 on court 23 might have a coveted one-year contract with the Ivy League.

“We’re independent contractors, so part of your goal every year is to get your contract again,” Terry Funk said. “I hope I ref well enough that the boss thinks well enough of me.”

Because there is so much review, the ability to be relentlessly self-critical is key.

“The amount of time we spend thinking about a play is double the time of the actual play,” Tieman said.

If she has an off night, she will go watch another official. She subscribes to Referee magazine, and studies different personality and leadership styles.

“I absolutely love it,” Tieman said. “There’s not a moment that goes by that I’m not thinking about the game.”

But such a devotion has its tolls.

Ivy League officials must be at the location of a game one and a half hours before tipoff in order to confer with the other two people on the officiating team that night. Female officials often manage these time imperatives with their day jobs and roles as primary caregivers.

“We have a saying in officiating: The hardest part is getting to the game,” Smith said.

Ivy League officials are compensated $500 a night, plus their transportation costs and a per diem. This amount is more than it used to be—when Meier started officiating the pay was $25 a night—but it is less than the $2000 that the Atlantic Conference pays and the work season is only October to April. As such, many officials have other professions. Smith, for instance, has a full-time job as a health insurance agent.

“I’ll do everything I can in terms of getting my work down, and my coworkers are really good at helping,” she said. “I use my vacation time when I do have a basketball game. So far it’s working, but it’s very, very challenging.”

Such a daunting travel schedule can affect family life as well. Being a great referee who is constantly improving and landing spots in higher conferences is not necessarily conducive to starting a family.

“It’s a lot easier for me because I’m single and don’t have children,” Smith said. “My family just knows from the months of October to April I’m pretty much all over the place.”

In other cases, with a full-time job, officiating career, and active family role, often something gives. For Funk, who has five boys under the age of seventeen, it was her day job that suffered.

“When I had my third son, I gave up my full-time job in engineering and decided to just referee,” she said. “For four to five months of the year it’s very hard to manage, but it gives me five to seven months of the year where I’m with my kids all the time, which is a wonderful gift for me.”

And her kids are supportive of their mom’s job.

“If I’m at Penn or Princeton they’ll take a ride down,” Funk said. “They think it’s kind of cool; not all of their friends’ moms are into sports.”

All the work is in the hopes of both maintaining a spot in the Ivy League and landing a spot in other ones.

Smith also officiates in the NBA’s Development League, a veritable fishbowl for players, coaches, and officials looking to make it at the highest level of men’s basketball.

Tieman is looking to be on the staff of the Big East next year, contingent on her performance at the summer camps. Funk is currently officiating in four Division I conferences and would like to add a fifth.

But both of these women show loyalty to the particularities of Ivy League basketball, where the pay and prestige may be lower but also where every game counts.

“The biggest thing from a sports perspective is that [Ivy League basketball doesn’t] have a seat in a conference tournament,” Funk said. “So the Harvard-Dartmouth game in January could have an enormous impact on whether they play in the postseason. Not many conferences have that. Every game is a championship game.”

And despite the high tensions and screams from coaches and the players during intense games, the black-and-whites say they still feel appreciated. The coaches are remarkably professional, they say, and the student-athletes are very polite. As a result, the referees put forth their highest dedication.

“In the 25 years I’ve done this, we’ve never had an official miss a game,” Meier said.

—Staff writer Anita J. Joseph can be reached at ajoseph@fas.harvard.edu.

—Follow her on Twitter @Anita__Joseph.

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