Sports officiating is an honorable profession requiring those who engage in it to have strong moral character and integrity. Officials must be fair-minded and courageous. They are expected to embrace and adhere to the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s Code of Ethics for Officials.
It takes a special person to be an official.
One such person is Wendell Miller of Iowa City.
Sports officials bear great responsibility for engendering public confidence in sports. They are critical to the health of athletic competitions.
Try hosting or playing a game in any sport without an official.
Officials ensure games are played fairly, by the rules, within the spirit of the rules and in a safe manner. Officiating takes a great deal of preparation, continuing education and commitment of time. Much is asked of those who officiate.
Miller, who graduated from Iowa Mennonite School in 1970, Hesston College in 1972 and the University of Iowa in 1978 with a Business Degree, gave of himself and his time for a number of years officiating high school basketball.
Almost all high school officials are part time and earn approximately $40 to $70 per game for junior varsity games and about $65 to $100 on the varsity level nowadays. Miller has not officiated since the early 1990s. On average, Iowa high school basketball officials are paid $100 to come ref a game (or two games if there’s a boys/girls varsity doubleheader). Individual schools are responsible for paying officials.
No matter the pay, it can’t make up for what officials hear from the crowd.
“There were always the comments about needing glasses and to call them both ways,” Miller said. “I remember longtime official Bob Oldis saying his return comment was, ‘I just call them, I don’t count them.’ I always liked that reply to a coach.”
No matter the clever response, it can’t always soothe one’s psyche.
“I always shut out the crowd, except that wasn’t always possible,” Miller said. “You must shut it out and go on.”
New officials work primarily junior high basketball games with an experienced official.
“Progression was then to do West High and City High sophomore games before the varsity games,” Miller said of when he started. “The large schools (4A) usually scheduled sophomore/varsity games either boys or girls. So younger local officials worked the sophomore game and then another set of officials worked the varsity game. Smaller schools schedule boys/girls games together and the same set of officials work both games.”
Chuck Brittain, the Iowa Girls High Sschool Athletic Union’s basketball officials liaison, wants to tap into the high schools and colleges to draw more officials for subvarsity levels. He also said he’d like to see officiating classes established at colleges and high schools, perhaps with course credit offered for officiating games.
Miller began officiating at Hesston doing intramural games in 1970-72. When he returned to Iowa City to attend University of Iowa, he contacted the local official’s association in Iowa City.
“Jack Boal (deceased) was the Iowa City Officials commissioner and he walked me through the process,” Miller said.
In order to work varsity games, referees and umpires in Iowa must attend at least one IHSAA sponsored rules clinic during their first three years of officiating. Those who want to officiate post season tournament games must attend a clinic at least once every three years to stay eligible.
To obtain a boys officials basketball license in Iowa, one must attend a state rules meeting and take a supervised test. It was 100 multiple choice questions and a 75 percent score needed to pass. Currently, the test is open book and online. Rules meetings are also online.
“Once you had a license, you did not need to take it again,” Miller said. “However, our local association always went through the tests as a group and some of us took the supervised test also.”
Miller was part of a officials’ group that was more diligent on the rules.
“Our local association had weekly rules meetings beginning about four weeks before the basketball season began and also had one session in a gym where we worked on signals and positioning,” he said.
When Miller was a referee, there were just two officials. There are now three.
“As I worked up to the varsity level, there were some officials that liked working with newer officials and did not partner up,” Miller said. “Other officials liked working with the same partner each night. Bob Saunders and I decided to partner up together. We began working together in the late 70s and were partners for over 10 years.”
Miller and Saunders saw a lot of each other,
“You could officiate four to five nights per week if you wanted to,” Miller said. “Some weeks we worked three varsity nights (Tuesday, Friday & sometimes Saturday) but primarily Tuesday and Friday. Then you could also work several late afternoon junior high games. The last two to three years, I only accepted varsity games.”
According to Iowa High School Athletic Association data, Iowa had 1,493 registered boys’ basketball officials in 2006-07. Ten years later, in 2016-17, that number had dwindled to 963. And about 45 percent of those still officiating games were 50 or older.
This trend has a significant impact on high school athletics as a whole. Athletic directors don’t schedule games unless they’ve got officials in line.
It is simple math: Fewer officials means games could be canceled at the varsity and, especially, subvarsity levels.
This problem isn’t limited to Iowa, either. According to the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations, only two out of every 10 high school officials return for a third year.
“Resources haven’t replenished,” said Brett Nanninga, the IHSAA’s associate director in charge of basketball. “You’ve still got that upper-echelon of veterans and older guys that are going out, and not enough young guys are coming in.”
If that trend does not change, high school athletics will.
Read tomorrow’s Union for more on Miller’s career as an official.