By Steve Williams

Sports referees don’t get much positive publicity.

Like Gene Menees of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association recalled recently, “It’s the old adage … You got to start out being perfect when you’re an official and get better from that point.”

However, during the pandemic this basketball season, that’s been different. Officials are being looked at in a different light, as they are working for less money to help offset financial losses that have hit high school athletics at the gate. Spectators are restricted to players’ parents or guardians and immediate household members due to the increase in COVID-19 infections.

That restriction, which continues through Jan. 19, was initiated with Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s Executive Order No. 70 on Dec. 21.

“What we did with officials’ fees was a direct result of the Governor’s order that drastically restricted people in the gym, which would drastically reduce the amount of gate,” said Menees, whose duties at the TSSAA include overseeing basketball and officials.

The TSSAA started getting some inquiries, asking if high school basketball games could be officiated by two-person crews instead of three-person crews to reduce expenses.

In Tennessee, the fee for a two-person crew working a girls’ and boys’ varsity doubleheader is $115 per official. That’s a total of $230.

A three-person crew is paid $105 per official, a $315 total.

“We didn’t want to go back and work two people and I think most of the coaches would tell you they would prefer three officials,” said Menees, “but we were trying to find a way to save a little bit of money.”

After talking to some people, Menees suggested working three-person crews at $80 per official, a total of $240, and he called all 12 officials’ associations across the state and talked to a supervisor at each association about it.

That would save a school $75 a night, meaning each official would receive $25 less.

“The consensus from the supervisors was, recalled Menees, ‘Well, we don’t want a pay cut, but we don’t want to go to two officials either. So if we can keep it at three, we much prefer that.’”

Menees also pointed out that if the TSSAA went to two-person crews, there would be several officials who would lose games.

The officials’ cutback in pay is for the remainder of the regular season. Regular pay will resume during post-season games.

“Some of them weren’t enthusiastic about a pay cut, but I think in most cases our officials have come on board with it,” said Menees.

“The majority of officials have been very professional, very cooperative and they were willing to do it. They discussed it and talked about it, but we really appreciate what the officials have done and it went into place Jan. 4.”

After Central had only “100 spectators” for its home games against Oak Ridge Jan. 5, Central Athletic Director J.D. Lambert made plans to recognize the officials at the school’s Jan. 8 games against Powell.

Lambert made an announcement of the referees’ financial sacrifice between the girls’ and boys’ games. The teams lined up and listened as Lambert addressed the fans. The officials received a nice ovation.

“They have willingly agreed to take less money to help the kids out,” said Lambert. “I hope the fans will appreciate their help and that they care.

“It’s going to help us pay our bills.”

Menees said: “Supervisors from all 12 of our associations do a great job and our officials are dedicated in basketball to the student-athletes and the game. From a supervisors’ perspective, nobody wanted a pay reduction from Memphis to Bristol.

“Some schools have more money than others, but some of our smaller schools rely upon those gate receipts to pay the expenses of the game that night.”

Supervisors and Menees felt today’s game needed to stick with three-person crews.

“With two officials, it would be hard to cover the way these kids are playing today,” he said. “I mean that as a compliment to the coaches and players.”

Kenny Coulter, longtime supervisor in the Knox South Officials Association, said he appreciates his officials’ loyalty.

“I feel most of them are doing it out of loyalty to the association and to the group,” he said. “I’ve had several officials call me and say, ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to call no matter what happens. We appreciate Knoxville South and our basketball association and we’re going to call. We’re going to officiate and just wanted to let you know.’

“So even though it’s a downward thing and our people don’t like it, they’ve continued and nobody has come out and said they’re not going to officiate because of the pay cut. I appreciate, especially as a supervisor, those guys’ loyalty.”