LA Refs

Referee Mike Sommer of Denham Springs, La., at a Feb. 7, 2010 District 5-5A matchup between the visiting McKinley High School Panthers and the St. Amant Gators. (Credit: Scott Branson)
Referee Mike Sommer of Denham Springs, La., at a Feb. 7, 2010 District 5-5A matchup between the visiting McKinley High School Panthers and the St. Amant Gators. (Credit: Scott Branson)

By Scott Branson | LSU Student

Some 186 Louisianans don the stripes, chomp down on whistles and maintain the rule of law at high school basketball games each week in East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Ascension, Livingston, Iberville and Point Coupe parishes.

The Baton Rouge Area Basketball Officials Association (BRABO) provides referees an opportunity to stay involved in basketball, long after their playing or coaching days are over.

"Most officials like to officiate because they want to be close to the game," said BRABOA president Harry Jenkins of Baton Rouge, who presides over BRABO referees.

While the association offers basketball aficionados a chance to give back to the sport they love, Jenkins warned that refereeing isn't for everyone.

"To me, basketball is the hardest sport in the world to officiate. You need instant reaction and (to make) split-second decisions. There's a whole lot going on in basketball."

To combat basketball's difficulties, the BRABOA offers training camps for current and prospective referees.

"It's an old adage, but you're only as strong as your weakest referee," Jenkins said. "I want to make sure the weakest referee experiences a continuous improvement in his referee skills."

Referees are ranked on a three-tiered scale, contingent on the official's experience level and test scores.

Beginning referees are labeled as "registered," two- to three- year officials can be considered "approved," and veteran referees are "certified." For the "approved" and "certified" ratings, the official must also earn a high enough test score. A score of 80 or above qualifies as an "approved" score, and 90 or above is considered a "certified" score.

Referees are assigned games regardless of their rating, but coaches have a list of each official's rating.

"When a referee is 'certified,' a coach is expecting a certain quality," Jenkins said.

Officials are also graded on their performances in games by selected "observers" and will advance if they score well and showing consistent improvement.

"Just like any NCAA official, the goal (of high school refs) is to referee the championship game," Jenkins said. "We have 186 officials and last year maybe 15 went to the championship (tournaments). That's incredible to be selected as one of the 15."

Jenkins said it takes time and effort to be a successful referee.

"Just putting a whistle in your hand and walking around with a referee shirt doesn't make you a referee," Jenkins said. "You have to wait at least five years before you can become 'certified,' because we want referees to get better."

A referee's rating is more than a point of pride. Officials are paid based on ratings. Certified refs make $40 per varsity game, approved $31 and registered $29, plus $15 to $18 in travel expenses, depending on distrance.

Says 30-year veteran official Mike Sommer of Denham Springs: "If you're doing this for the money, you're in the wrong game."

In addition to working high school basketball games, the 52-year-old Sommer is employed as an NCAA referee and holds down a full-time job working as an account manager for Airgas

"I do it because I love the game. Some people hunt and fish. I play golf and referee."

Sommer also stressed the education of younger referees as one of BRABOA's main institutional goals.

"We try to work with the younger officials because there will come a day when I don't do this," Sommer said. "But as long as I can run, as long as I feel like I'm in good enough shape to keep up and control the games, I'm going to referee."

Sommer, who himself played basketball at Denham Springs High School, said he started refereeing youth basketball after high school before a family friend referred him to the BRABOA in 1982.

Thirty years later, Sommer said he referees about five nights a week.

"You have to invest time and effort to be a good referee, and that's my responsibility," says Jenkins. "They're going to actually have to carry me off the court for me to stop officiating."