Lacrosse is a complicated game to officiate -- the ball moves fast, and players shuffle in and out of the substitution box, each team making hundreds of changes per game. The rulebook is thick. Rules are subjective. There are myriad responsibilities.
This article is not meant to criticize officials. It's geared toward referee improvement. Bottom line: How can we maximize referee performance?
I get to watch about 50 Division I lacrosse games each season. In my opinion, the 2008 season was an excellent year for officials. Unfortunately, 2009 was not as strong, although the officiating I witnessed during the '09 NCAA tournament was outstanding. The top-caliber officials are sensational, but there appears to be a substantial gap between the best and worst referees.
Here are a few suggestions I think would improve referee performance.
Physical fitness test
Division I lacrosse needs a physical fitness test for all officials. If you can't run, you can't put yourself in proper position to make the call. Mistakes often are a result of fatigue. It's shocking that after the tragic on-the-field death of referee Scotty Boyle in 2005, physical fitness tests weren't instituted.
Top Division I officials deserve a pay raise. They are at the low end of Division I officials for all sports. In the past five years, coaches have received pay upgrades. Exposure has increased. There is more at stake for everybody. If referee pay is increased, demands also can increase and officials can be asked to put in extra time to perfect their craft.
It's about relationships
Why is there often an adversarial relationship between officials and coaches? A top-tier coach has a lot on the line. Six-figure salaries, huge camp income, an athletic director breathing down his neck and zealous alums who expect a trip to championship weekend on Memorial Day. The modern-day coach has a lot to lose. He typically works 80 hours a week during the spring. In his mind, a "part-time" ref is costing him a game and his job. Coaches want referees to be more than "part-time," two-hour employees.
Get rid of the part-time mentality
One of the reasons referee performance skyrockets during the NCAA tournament comes down to simple prep time. The officials are typically at the venue the evening before the game, when they meet, eat together and get on the same page. College football has a mandatory 6 p.m. Friday report time before a Saturday game. Football officials meet, eat, review film and discuss pertinent issues they may face the next day.
How many lacrosse officials are watching tape? How can we expect success when referees show up two hours before faceoff?
Youth league and college games don't mix
Because of the low pay scale, referees tend to overwork themselves -- officiating as many games as possible during the spring to maximize their revenue. It's understandable but not in the best interests of the game -- at any level.
Here's the problem: A referee will work a high school junior varsity game on Thursday, a varsity game on Friday, an NCAA Division I game on Saturday and a club game on Sunday. I have even heard of Long Island officials working youth league games on a Saturday morning before a Division I college game in the afternoon. This would never happen in football or basketball.
Although the rules and interpretations vary little from level to level, the tolerable violence and physical aspect of the game must be managed differently.
I help coach a high school team. When Division I officials show up for our games, it's a good news/bad news scenario. The good news is the official is of Division I quality and knows the game and will administer it properly. The bad news is that because he's used to Division I lacrosse, his tolerance for slashing, high hits and overall physical play is higher than what should be permissible for 15- and 16-year-olds.
When officials work multiple levels of games -- from youth up the scale to Major League Lacrosse -- the game eventually suffers.
Watch more video
Officials must better use video to teach, educate and prepare for Saturday afternoons.
Here is an example of how video improved performance: In 2009, there was speculation that Cornell faceoff man John Glynn was grabbing the ball with a free hand. After scrutinizing video, it confirmed that at times, Glynn in fact would grab or tap the ball with his free hand.
Tape was submitted to Warren Kimber, the NCAA national coordinator of officials. Kimber made an excellent strategic move. He allowed the wing officials on the faceoff to stalk the center draw men, and the referees moved to about 12 yards off the ball.
Consult the experts
Faceoff shenanigans are nothing new, but why does it seem as if referees are two to three years behind the trends?
At the next convention or national referee meeting, bring in a handful of graduated faceoff specialists (Paul Cantabene, David Jenkins and Peter Jacobs) to pick their brains on some of the secrets to cheating. (Editor's note: During the walk-through practices before the Division I national semifinals in Foxborough, Mass., this past May, Kimber was seen talking to a couple of faceoff men asking for tidbits on the newest faceoff techniques, legal and otherwise.)
Develop an online home for video clips
Are officials watching tape? Would they benefit from an advance screening of the teams they're about to officiate?
An online home for video clips, posted by either the national coordinator of officials, conferences or coaches, would be an excellent resource. It would be a Web site on which referees could post certain video and show why a call was proper or incorrect. The Web site could become a database and easily could teach young referees. It even could help college coaches instruct their players.
Work as crews
College football officials work as crews. Wouldn't a crew format improve referee ratings? Division I lacrosse tried the crew format in 2006 for a season. The refs I spoke with liked it and thought it worked well.
If a team of three officials did every game together from February through May, I'm guessing those refs' ratings would be higher with experience at the end of the year.
We're talking about practice
In college and pro football, officials often work with teams during the week of practice. Virginia football coach Al Groh has paid officials at every single preseason practice. It benefits the official, sharpens his skills and benefits Groh's players. The coach and referees develop a friendly, professional working relationship.
This is a rarity in lacrosse. If lacrosse officials were paid more for their Saturday work, they'd be more inclined to spend a Tuesday afternoon at practice. Officials would be sending a message to coaches -- that they're all on the same team. The referee is working on his craft, which shows that his officiating is more than a part-time job. He cares. This would lessen the adversarial relationship between zebras and coaches.
Summer camp circuit ideal for development
Use the summer camp circuit to rapidly train, educate, evaluate and prepare beginner referees. Officials easily could work three games, meet and be evaluated on a daily basis. Top Division I coaches could be brought into the process.
Training centers at the top recruiting camps will accelerate the development of young officials -- and can be paid for from the coffers of the megacamps. Division I would benefit from new blood -- an influx of young, sharp, talented officials to blend with the outstanding core of veterans who currently roam the field.
Further expansion of lacrosse at the youth and high school levels is dependent on a growing reserve of quality officials, especially in non-hotbed locations. The camp format would allow for rapid, high-intensity training and would have time management in mind.
Quint Kessenich covers lacrosse for the ESPN family of networks. He welcomes your e-mails at Quint@insidelacrosse.com. For more on college lacrosse, check out Inside Lacrosse.