Nothing surprises David Lee anymore.
The District III basketball referee has heard it all in his chosen profession.
“Call it both ways.”
“Where’s the whistle?”
And of course the classic, “Are you blind?”
But Lee, who doubles as the District III Commissioner, will be getting some much needed backup when it matters the most. Three-man officiating crews will work state basketball games for the first in Idaho history.
The mandate, which was passed by the Idaho High School Activities Association last year, goes into effect with the start of today’s state girls tournaments around the Treasure Valley.
“The game has evolved enough now where it’s definitely needed,” Lee said. “The game is so much faster and physical than it’s ever been. I mean it’s almost like a junior college game out there sometimes. So for officials to be able to do their jobs efficiently and for the benefit of the kids and the coaches, it’s a better officiated game this way.”
Three-man officiating crews have been advocated for long before IHSAA Executive Director Ty Jones took office nearly five years ago.
“I would venture a guess of at least 12 years,” Jones said. “I remember this being pushed when I was the athletic director at Jerome and that was a long time ago.”
Jones recalled receiving phone calls from then District IV Commissioner Sean Standley. Standley asked Jones if he could experiment with three-man crews during nonconference games. Jones and the other athletic directors agreed to it at the time. The only condition was it not be used during league and district tournament games.
“We felt those weren’t the type of games to experiment on because that’s not how it’s going to be at state,” Jones said. “So it was important for us to keep it the same as the state tournament.”
The use of three-man officiating crews in Idaho began in 2006 with the Inland Empire League in District I.
District I Commissioner John Posnick got the idea after working a collegiate game where three-man crews have been the standard for years. He also noticed that nearly every state required the use of three officials at state games opposed to Idaho’s two.
Idaho ended up being the last state to mandate three-man officiating crews for high school state basketball tournaments.
Posnick started slowly. He began with 5A and 4A classification games such as the annual “Fight for the Fish” spirit games between Lake City and Coeur d’Alene. The district now employs three-man crews for every single game from 5A to 1A Division II.
“Anytime you try something new, people are always going to have questions and push back a little,” Posnick said. “The biggest questions we were asked were, ‘Are there going to be more fouls called and is this only going to be for the big schools?’ But once those things were answered, I don’t think I heard any negative feedback.”
But none of Idaho’s other districts followed Posnick’s lead.
It took more than a decade for them to finally get on board. District IV, which includes Jerome, Burley and Twin Falls, added three-person crews for its 4A and 1A Division I games just last year. Idaho Falls-based District VI was the same way. But it limited the method to only a few schools’ home games.
And Treasure Valley’s District III was the last to the party. It didn’t start incorporating the procedure until this season and only after the IHSAA passed the requirement of a three-man officiating crew at state tournaments by a vote of 11-2 in January of 2018.
The resolution, though, only applies to state tournaments. It doesn’t pertain to the regular season or district tournaments. However, according to Lee, every District III conference has at one point this season had three referees for at least one of its games.
But the method was disproportionate between the district’s six leagues.
For example, a 3A Snake River Valley girls game between Homedale and Parma on Jan. 22 had three officials. But for a highly anticipated 5A Southern Idaho Conference boys showdown between No. 1 Rocky Mountain and No. 4 Borah a week later, a two-man crew was used.
The disparity has to do with the fact that the decision to use three- or two-man crews ultimately lies with the hosting school because a hosting school is responsible for the officials’ compensation.
In a survey emailed out to boys and girls coaches in District III by the Idaho Press, games overseen by three referees varied greatly.
The 5A schools had the most with about 75 percent of its games being officiated by three-man crews; 3A was next with about 50 percent; while 4A, 2A, 1A Division I and 1A Division II all hovered at approximately 25 percent.
The reason why more schools are not employing three-man crews likely has to do with finances. It does cost the host school more money to go with three officials as opposed to two.
When the board passed the measure, they knew it would add between $2,000 to $2,500 of costs to any given school in a year. The average cost of a varsity official is around $61 per game. The schools also have to pay a traveling fee for the officials.
“For some schools, they can handle that,” Jones said. “But for others, that’s three year’s worth of revenue in some instances. I get it, money for schools is not grown on trees. It’s not readily available.”
However, there are some cost-saving measures that have been implemented.
District I, for instance, offers a discount. For a three-person game, the schools are only charged for two and a half officials. That’s a savings of about $31. So it only costs schools about $30 more to have a three-man crew instead of two.
In District III, officials working a three-man crew are paid $49 as opposed to $62 for two-man.
Lee also offered a solution of his own.
He would like to see Idaho take a page out of the book of a neighboring state. Oregon schools routinely schedule girls and boys varsity doubleheaders. If Idaho were to go to that format, Lee said he could use the same crew for both games, which would save the schools on travel costs.
But all those solutions don’t work with a lack of officials.
According to Jones, there are only 179 referees in the state. While it is an increase of 17 from the previous year, less than a third are certified to work on three-man crews. And of the 75 that have passed the required training, Lee said just 30 have the experience to work a varsity game.
Posnick said out of his 65 officials, only 35 can work a varsity game.
It’s a real issue when on any given night during the regular season in the Treasure Valley there are about 90 games in need of officiating. Lee said it’s about to get to a point where games are going to have to be played six days a week, Monday through Saturday. Currently, most games are on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Few games are played on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Lee is not only going to have to field three-man crews for all of this week’s girls state games, but for boys districts as well.
“I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” Lee said. “We’re not growing with officials and we already have another school (Owyhee) coming in. Some officials are already working five, six games a week. We’re short on any given night. It’s a battle.”
OVER AND BACK
The mechanics of a three-man crew sees the lead official along the baseline of the court. The trail official sits at the top of the 3-point line, while the center official is positioned across the court near the free-throw line.
A two-man group still has the lead official at the baseline, but the trail official is by the free-throw line instead. This leaves one side of the court completely obstructed, leading to what Lee and Posnick call “guess work.”
“Part of this three-person mechanics is, there is so much off-ball officiating that three-person mechanics is able to do,” Lee said. “Even with two-person we’re off-ball officiating where we’re both not just concentrating on the players with the ball. There are eight other players that are involved out there and you can’t miss it.”
While having three referees instead of two doesn’t necessarily lead to fewer calls in game, both Lee and Posnick said it results in less missed calls. The majority of coaches surveyed agreed with that point. Of the 20 boys and girls coaches who responded, 12 said they were in favor of three-man crews for that very reason.
“It cleans up the game,” Middleton boys coach Andy Harrington said. “It eliminates teams playing an ugly brand of basketball. Holding, pushing, body checking and moving screens is not toughness.
“We are at a disadvantage this year because we have two big kids that get hammered every game, but with only two officials, it is hard to see every angle to make the correct call. Two officials benefits teams that are already at a disadvantage due to talent and size because they are the ones that have to hold, do a moving screen and push in the back to win the game.”
It’s also much less strain on an official’s body. Lee and Posnick both said they had previously retired officials with years of experience come back to work on three-man crews. It’s why all of their respected officials are unanimously in favor of three-person crews over two.
“There probably would be a revolt if we want back to two,” laughed Posnick.
The SRV is also a big fan. The league used three officials for all of its games.
But not everyone is on board yet.
Those who are against three-man crews, including eight coaches from the survey, are not necessarily opposed to the idea, they just want consistency.
“I don’t like having it mixed,” Caldwell girls coach Ashley Green said. “We either need all two-man or all three-man because you get used to getting or not getting certain calls with two-man and then get hit with these little fouls you were not getting called in a two-man game.”
Melba boys coach Spencer Trappett also brought up another valid concern.
“I had several games with a two-man crew where one of the officials was a (junior varsity) official,” he said. “Officials were not in sync for the most part. I saw a lot more missed calls and it made it a tough game with them not having enough experience.”
It’s why a few of the 5A and all of the 4A Southern Idaho Conference schools didn’t want three-man crews for their league games.
“It’s like bringing a sophomore up to varsity, there will sometimes be growing pains,” Posnick said. “We usually pair new officials with two experienced ones, but there are still hiccups sometimes. But I still think the positives outweighs the negatives.”
Jones said if more referees come on board, he could see three-man officiating crews not just being mandatory for state, but for all games within three to five years.
Just don’t expect the heckling of the referees to change, even with an extra set of eyes out there. Lee has already heard that one too.
“It’s now, ‘There are three of you out there now and you still can’t see the play,’” Lee laughed. “They follow that up with, ‘You might as well go back to two.’”