By: Ken Edwards, CMAA
Sitting in the audience at my first NIAAA Conference in 2018 at San Antonio, I was prepared for another boring, data filled session on sportsmanship in high school athletics. Instead, I heard a small, brief mention of an initiative that the state of Minnesota had started the previous year entitled "Thank-a-Ref Night," and it would completely change the way we view referees at Jamestown. At the time, I thought this was a nice idea, but I must admit that I thought it was something we would try in the next couple of years, not in the next month.
Unfortunately, when I returned to the ongoing winter season at Jamestown, we had an issue with sportsmanship and a poor display towards a referee in one of our sports. Exasperated and frustrated, I decided to put "Thank-a-Ref Night" into action. With the approval of our principal and school system, we launched our first "Thank-a-Ref Night" at a boys' basketball game in January, 2019. It was an immediate success in that it not only demonstrated that we are thankful for our referees and all of their hard work and sacrifice, but it also showed our student athletes that referees are human, too. They are going to have bad days and make mistakes. We try to emphasize that none of our referees are professional and all have full-time jobs that they have to work every day. I believe that this initiative has helped our sportsmanship with our student athletes, coaches, and spectators.
The actual implementation of "Thank-a-Ref Night" is pretty simple and I find that we are adding little things each sports season. Here is how it works:
All of these things are done before the actual date of the first "Thank-a-Ref Night" game.
In the days leading up to the game, I try to bring as much attention to the game as possible through our social media accounts. I stress how much we are thankful for the referees and their hard work and sacrifice. I also ask our coaches to speak to their student athletes regarding our expectations for all interactions with officials. We stress that they are human and will make mistakes and that we must have a "next play" mentality when it comes to calls that we disagree with during the contest. I also stress that the coach is the person that will bring this initiative to life, as all eyes will be on them during the contest. If they react with anger or displeasure to a call, then our goals and objectives are in danger of not being met. They do not have to agree with every call, but all of our coaches should be able to communicate with referees in a professional and respectful manner. We also send something to the coaches that they forward to the parents, in which we ask them to show respect to the officials and be a role-model for their children. After the game is over, we continue to stress these points to our coaches, student-athletes and parents for the remainder of the season. Before the game, I ask both teams to take a picture with the referees. I put this picture on our social media platforms and really stress how much we appreciate their hard work and sacrifice. I have had so many officials ask for the picture after the game, that I have begun to email a copy to the commissioner of the referee association, so he/she can share it with all of the referees. We have an announcement that we read before the game that acknowledges the referees and thanks them (although we never announce or publish their names). We post a laminated announcement at our ticket table that details how anyone can become a high school official and we make several announcements during the contest that spectators are welcome to take a picture of this information and start the steps of becoming a high school official. There are a few associations in our area that are suffering from a lack of officials and we want to let them know that we are actively helping them in recruiting officials in their particular sport. After the contest is over (and usually in private), we present the gift bags to the officials. We do this in private because we do not want spectators to assume that there was some quid pro quo, which could create a situation that would be uncomfortable for our referees. We are very thankful for all of the support that we have received from coaches, student athletes, parents and administrators for our "Thank-a-Ref Nights." This is becoming a tradition at Jamestown and I truly believe that it has helped us reinforce and teach our sportsmanship goals and objectives to our student athletes.