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Youth Basketball Officiating: When “Let Them Play” Yields Bad Habits

This is NOT a story about throwing youth basketball referees under the bus for “bad officiating.” That’s probably one of the biggest yawner, clichéd gripes in the history of basketball, youth or not. As Deadspin recently reported, youth hoops referees are in short supply and unnecessary complaining likely isn't helping that shortage.

I want to state, emphatically, that I cannot imagine being an official, for any sport. Officiating is truly one of the most thankless jobs anyone can undertake, and we should all tip our caps to most of the people who dare to enter that snake pit. So, this doesn’t fall under the category of “why don’t you try it,” either, because you wouldn’t catch me trying to be an official for any amount of money. I realize, in some people’s eyes, that admission alone disqualifies me from commenting on officials. While I disagree, those individuals are certainly entitled to that opinion.

This piece is merely an opportunity to continue a healthy debate among youth basketball participants. What age is the right age to start vigorously enforcing traveling, lane violations, reaching-in, moving screens, and ball-carrying? And how do officials acknowledge and establish benchmarks for shifts in the game like the Euro step?

I recently sat through a painfully brutal 11-year-old basketball game. To be fair, that age group can be tough enough the way it is and seems to be the point where the good players really start to put distance between the bad. Add to that, the early pubescent’s mixing with the “still-haven’t-hit-a-growth-spurt” crowd and it can be a Keystone Cops affair right from the tip. The game I sat through was excessively pitiful, not because of bad officiating, per se, but what I judged to be irresponsible, inconsistent, and disinterested officiating. And I am seeing and hearing a lot about this in youth basketball.

I am all about letting people play in a basketball game. There is no bigger game-killer than a bunch of ticky-tack hand check and incidental body contact calls. While I do appreciate refs who take the time to explain these calls to the kids and coaches, it still doesn’t improve the flow and pace of the game.

The other extreme, however, is when the “let them play” attitude leads to bad habits. In the game I witnessed, I counted at least a dozen legitimate traveling violations that went uncalled. I’m not talking about a microscopic move of a pivot foot or an errant stutter step from some uncoordinated kid. I’m mean walking with the ball, dragging a pivot foot several inches, etc.

Then there is reaching in. Some kid’s defensive skills look more like a game of Hungry Hippos than proper basketball technique. This is not knit-picky, hand-check stuff either. The slapping, swatting, and grabbing can be ugly and overwhelming to watch, not to mention play through. It also shouldn’t be tolerated by referees. If a kid gets slapped on the arm on the way to the basket, it should be a reach-in foul. If a kid is standing at the point, trying to run a play, and their defender is swatting at them like they’re about to be bitten by a wasp, make the call. Convene a huddle of the players on both sides and explain what will not be tolerated. Better basketball will be the result.

Moving screens are where things can really get dangerous. I witnessed screens in the game I watched that looked more like football blocks. If a defender moves with his man, runs into a pick, and flies five feet across the floor, landing in a heap, unless there is a severe size mismatch, there might be a problem.

Officials, old and young, also need to keep up with progressions in the game. Regardless of what stalwarts think, moves like the Euro step are part of modern basketball. These techniques are taught in almost every camp and program in the world. Youth basketball organizations need to sit down with officials, at the beginning of the year, and decide how these techniques are to be officiated. Those decisions need to be communicated to the coaches and kids.

It is pointed out often and I do realize that some referees are either volunteers or are not paid princely sums to do what they do. I go back to something I heard a long time ago from a well-respect ref I knew, “volunteer doesn’t mean ‘I can suck at what I do.’” While my hat goes-off to most of the volunteer officials, sometimes we get what we pay for and programs need to be aware of that too. I have a hard time believing parents wouldn’t chip-in a buck per game to pay for decent officials who know the game well and want to see it played correctly. If it’s that brutal to watch as a parent, it can’t be any better as an official.

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