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Lessons from the hardwood

| Friday, November 17, 2017

It’s not every day that I get called “Sir.” It’s about once a week. And in case you missed the byline, I’m a female.

Once a week, I pull a baggy black and white striped uniform over my head, strap up my laces and set a whistle between my front teeth.

I’ve been refereeing intramural basketball at Notre Dame for two years, and have heard some pretty interesting comments, including the accidental “Sir!” — some males aren’t used to having female referees — and the not-so-accidental protests and exasperated sighs. I’ve seen some pretty crazy games, including one where a team got ejected for getting three technical fouls because they dunked the ball twice during warmups and then punted the ball at half. And in my two years of refereeing, I’ve grown a pretty crazy amount in my confidence, skill level and professionalism.

As we enter the playoffs for Co-Rec basketball, I think it’s time everyone gets to know the student referees who make playing the game possible. For when we’re on the court, we’re stone-faced and strict, but we’re there because we love the sport just as much as the players do.

“This has become such a great way for me to be involved in the game,” said first-year graduate student Tim Zdunek. “It’s also taught me a lot about the game, and I’ve started to view basketball games in a different light because of that newfound knowledge.”

Many of the student basketball referees play on teams themselves, and said that being a referee has made them appreciate the sport and the officials so much more.

Refereeing basketball is particularly challenging because the action happens in the blink of an eye. You have to know where you’re supposed to be on the court, what is occurring in your zone and be able to recognize a violation or foul when you see one. And you don’t want to mess up, because things can get out of hand quickly.

“Game management is super important and super hard, because the court is small, and the benches and opposing teams are so close, that it usually becomes a game of posturing,” said junior Claire Ackerson. “Players will talk to you and benches will yell, and most of the time they know their claim isn’t going anywhere: For them it’s just part of the game and ego.”

Not all comments are unwanted, however. Ackerson said one of her most memorable moments refereeing was when a player randomly told her on the court: “I bet you get a lot of steps.” She gave him her usual “disapproving raised eyebrow look,” — a look I think all referees know well — and then he added, “With your FitBit. I bet you get a lot of steps doing this.” Ackerson, who always wears her FitBit, thought that was a hilarious interaction.

For senior Julio Salazar, the most rewarding moments are after the game when players will thank him or tell him he did a good job.

“It’s also personally rewarding in that I learn more about the sport each time I put on the stripes or study the rule book. I become part of the game,” he said.

Intramural referees aren’t there to make your game less fun. We’re there to ensure an equal and safe environment. We’re there because we love watching basketball. And we’re there because we like our jobs.

Salazar referees because it’s his way onto the court and an entrance point into the larger world of basketball.

Ackerson loves getting into the rhythm of a game and the feeling of accomplishment when it ends.

Zdunek plans to continue refereeing as a side job after graduating, working high school games and potentially college games later in life.

These are the students who manage the basketball court. We may not always call perfect games, but we’re always trying our best.

So next time you get frustrated on the basketball court — and believe me, I’ve been there too — remember that it’s your peers who are refereeing, and you might just run into them in class one day.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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