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The Tale of Old Straightlace

This story is unpublished. It was written for a class while Molly was attending Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

We called him Old Straightlace, and he was the toughest ref in town.

I spent every Thursday night with Straightlace, from September to January, four years in a row, as he officiated our high school basketball games. He was a ref that every teenage basketball player feared. He knew the rulebook, our tricks and had a sixth sense for trouble. His fairness and calm manner put shame in our adolescent hearts.

The closest I come to athletics now is wearing gym shorts while I do laundry. I loved my small career, but I’ve lost most of its details. I forget teammate’s names, coach’s mottos, what the small boxes in the paint are drawn for. Old Straightlace stays with me. Why?

Straightlace had iron-gray hair and a blue five o’clock shadow that never grew or receded. He ran with his whistle clamped between his teeth. Its strings hung like reins on a horse’s bit. He wasn’t tall or broad, but when he stood with his hands on his hips and his feet planted, he towered over every center in the league. His voice was deep and textured and tangible, like a thick line of alligator bark on an oak tree.

He silenced coaches with a slight raise of one eyebrow, he stopped hecklers with a quick glare; it took only his finger to his throat to quiet whining players.

Old Straightlace wasn’t a zebra – he was a dragon.

In a close game, I dove for a loose ball and tapped my head on the corner of the bleachers. I was knocked out. When I regained consciousness, the first thing I saw was Straightlace bent over me. He pushed my eyelids back with his thumbs. He looked at my pupils, then in my eyes, and walked away. Everyone else swarmed closer, and I was taken to a hospital where I was pronounced fine, save for a knot on my forehead. The experience left me with a temporary new nickname – Bleacher Face – and questioning the quick connection this mysterious man had made with me.

High school basketball officials are fascinating. The majority of them don’t work college games, though some top-level ones do. Not a single ref I’ve spoken with aspires to NBA stardom. Many officials work feeder games, which are fifth- and sixth-grade boys and girls, as well as reffing freshman A and B teams and junior varsity leagues. (These games are what’s called small potatoes.)

The officials use their own money to travel to and from games. The most dedicated also join refereeing associations, which provide extra training and background, along with safety in numbers.

All the effort, all the time and every referee said he feels underappreciated. So why keep going?

Jeff Curtin is a certified basketball official, the highest level a high school ref can achieve. (The ladder goes: registered, recognized, certified.) He has officiated Chicago high school basketball games for 26 years and will work 125 games this season. He said a referee can get paid up to $60 for working a varsity game.

“Each game is an hour and a half. Most good officials get there an hour before the game, and then an hour after the game they get home,” he said. “That’s three to four hours of work, so for $60, it’s more than just the money.”

The job is infinitely detail-oriented, repetitive and requires perfection. It’s data entry. In a uniform. Perfection is the whole point, but Curtin and other refs agree that it’s impossible to call a perfect game every time.

Moreover, the job of a high school referee is one of an active witness – he has total control over something that doesn’t affect anybody’s life that much. There are great games and memorable moments, but there are also blow-outs and double dribbles. Sure, sports are relevant to American society and they could teach morality and values, but we’re talking high school. This is about teenage testosterone and adolescent anguish. The heroes have braces and the villains have acne.

A ref has 100 percent of the power over something that everybody is happy to have an interest in, but most won’t remember. It’s like being president of a country made up of grandstand amnesiacs. With a few grudge-nursers thrown in.

Aside from the fact that the ref’s effect isn’t memorable, many officials want to be invisible themselves.

“The name of the game from a referee’s standpoint is to go by unscathed and unknown,” Curtin said. He said each ref wants to be forgotten; it shows their calls were true and their role was minimal. Why would anybody risk being torn limb from limb by an angry fan, just to be invisible?

I’ll be honest – when I played basketball, I liked the referees. That probably comes from the same gene that makes me return library books on time. Better yet, the refs liked me. I was always one of their favorites.

Perhaps it was my famed lack of ability. I didn’t have the hand strength to open a jar of marmalade. My vertical leap topped out when I stood still. When my coach told me to mix it up in the paint, I panicked and scored two points for the other side.

But how I loved the game, the practices, the teaminess of it. I liked the pressure, the responsibility, the ways to substitute something I could do for something I couldn’t. I loved the refs because they kept the playing field level, which helped showcase my hard work.

Always a rulebook kind of girl, I appreciated that there was someone who could give me a definitive answer. Yes or no. You’ve fouled or you haven’t. No either, no neither, no both. The officials were sure of themselves. They didn’t care how the game ended, just how it was played.

Here is another point to be made about officiating: an athlete’s goal is to win, to finish the game, while a referee’s goal is to observe the game and to have nothing to do with who triumphs.

“A player or coach or fan’s worst fear is to know that a referee changed the outcome of the game dramatically. We’re not there to determine who wins,” Curtin said.

Even though I appreciated their presence and thought most of the refs who worked my games had good judgment, I always wondered what type of person signed up to be a referee. Who thinks they can gauge the actions of ten basketball players perfectly every time?

In Illinois, all you have to do to become a high school basketball ref is register with the Illinois High School Association. You take an open book test on the rules, then you get a badge and hey presto, you’re registered. What keeps out the bad guys?

“It’s an individual thing,” Curtin said. “It’s like anyone’s own DNA makeup. What’s in their heart is what they’re going to do. If they’re going to be crooked, it’s going to come out. It weeds itself out.”

And how do they stay unbiased? Effort is apparent in high school basketball. A ref that sees a kid trying hard, battling, playing fair but losing because of someone else’s fault or maybe her own lack of ability… how could he not sympathize with the player? How could his heart not yearn to fly to her and help her along?

Push up her eyelids to see if she’s ok.

Fred Allman has been officiating games in the Chicago area for 21 years. He, like Curtin, is also at the highest level a high school referee can be.

“You have to take the floor with an attitude of you’re going to do the best job you possibly can,” he said. “And you honestly do not care who wins the game.”

I spoke with other referees about the process of remaining unbiased, and every one echoed Allman’s statement. They acknowledged that with sports comes emotion. They agreed that by officiating at the same high schools year after year, they get to know coaches and players, even troublesome fans.

“It’s mind over matter,” Curtin said. “When a referee takes the court, unbeknownst to a lot of parents and fans, they have no prejudged opinion or disposition against somebody, a coach, a player or a fan.”

Allman expressed feelings of exclusion, that he loves basketball as much as the players and coaches, yet he’s always seen as the bad guy.

“We are far more than the necessary evil that many people make us feel that we are,” he said.

The basic question then is why do refs ref?

“It’s my part-time job. This is for fun, for love of the game. It feels good to see and officiate a game that’s played well,” Curtin said.

For love of the game, Allman agreed.

I don’t know where Old Straightlace is now. I heard rumors that he died. As a player, I’d been close enough to feel the air expelled from his whistle and hear the ball rattling madly inside it. I’d looked at the knots in his shoelaces. I’d seen his sweat drip. I’d watched him guide us around the court like pieces of chess. I’d applauded his calls, protested them and grudgingly acknowledged his expertise.

I realized that I never doubted Straightlace’s calls. I objected to them when my team suffered, but I had never truly believed him wrong. I have yet to discover what quality he possessed that gave me, and everyone around him, faith in his judgment. Maybe it was that I knew he was an honest ref.

Old Straightlace’s legacy stays with me and perhaps a few other sentimental players. He put up with trash talking, cat calling and once I think someone threw a chili dog at him. He spent half his life standing in anonymous teacher’s workrooms, swigging red Gatorade and sweating in black sneakers.

I know other things in life are just as impermanent as a sports game. The jobs many of us work, the lives many of us lead. They’ll fade away, but it seems that the calls a referee makes fade just a little bit faster.

I can’t figure out why anyone would sign up to be a referee. It seems to be a thankless job that requires perfection – which is unattainable – and takes time, money and patience. You risk your dignity and personal safety to have a hand in meting out justice for high school students, many of whom play for reasons other than love of the game.

Still, there is something haunting in the image of a steely-eyed man jogging quietly up and down a basketball court, calling the world right or wrong as he sees it. Guiding the game and watching over its players, making sure things are fair.

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