Referees Wanted: Michigan State Recreational Sports Needs You
It’s not for everybody, as referees need to be MSU students. But referee life is real, pretty funny, comes with pay and a connection to sports.
Watching a bunch of sweaty college students play basketball, making snap decisions and getting the occasional earful after a small mistake - as a student. If that sounds like a great way to spend a weeknight, head over to Michigan State’s Recreational Sports and Fitness webpage and submit an application to be an intramural referee.
That’s not an especially enticing offer for most, but those who show up with regularity at IM East on weeknights don’t seem to mind it.
There are a few different reasons for taking an interest in refereeing at the amateur level, whether it be a desire for some extra cash on the side or something to do on a random Thursday night. But it all comes back to the love of the game and a desire to stay around that competitive environment for most of the refs at IM East.
“In high school, I was really involved in sports like baseball and basketball,” said Ethan Anspaugh, a freshman at Michigan State and basketball official at IM East. “Obviously you can’t really play them right now, at a big school like this. This is kind of something that fills that void.”
Others, like Caleb Zurek, joined at the behest of a sibling. But again, that desire to stay involved in sports helped push him to join.
“My brother kind of forced me into it, because he’s a supervisor here,” said Zurek, a freshman at MSU. “But I've been playing basketball for a long time, and I figured why not officiate. I know most of the rules already.”
Zurek also referees high school basketball games throughout the Lansing area, mainly working freshman and junior varsity matchups.
Plenty of other officials joined due to prior involvement in the intramurals.
“I think the largest motivator for anyone to get involved in officiating intramural sports comes from the people who play intramural sports,” said Assistant Director of IM Sports Ross Winter. “If you play and you find out that you enjoy it, you have a good time being in that environment, and then you see that there are other people that can make a little bit of money being around that environment more often, that’s where we get our pool of applicants. ”
Winter is no stranger to intramural sports, as his dad worked in and played IM sports. As a student at MSU, Winter was a building supervisor at IM East and often found himself officiating games.
“Refereeing kind of runs in my blood,” said Winter.
On paper, getting paid to watch sports sounds like a great time. But being an official is more complicated than it looks, especially in a fast-paced sport like basketball. It’s a lot easier to make a call from the comfort of the couch.
“I thought it was going to be super easy,” said Anspaugh. “I’ve played the sport, I know the basic calls, but once you're actually doing the job, you kind of just go blank; you don’t really know what you’re doing. You figure it out as you go.”
Anspaugh is still figuring things out as he goes, just a couple of weeks into his refereeing career. Although as a former high school athlete and current CoRec basketball player, he’s been quick to adjust.
“With experience it gets better,” said Anspaugh.
Being a referee at an intramural league doesn’t just entail watching like a hawk for illegal screens and personal fouls. Officials also have to keep score, keep track of (some) personal stats and assist with setup.
That’s not all. There is the customer service side of things, especially when a player isn’t too happy with a call.
Luckily for the officials working MSU’s intramural sports, a majority of the players don’t take things too personally - most of the time.
“Intramural, it’s not that serious,” said Anspaugh. “You still have players coming at you, talking in your ear. It’s just part of the job.”
A good chunk of those playing tend to respect the officials. After all, it’s hard to take a game between “Shaq’tin a fool” and “Danger Zone” too seriously. That doesn’t mean there isn’t the occasional run-in with an especially frustrated player.
“The last game I reffed, I T’d a kid up,” said Zurek. “He drove in, missed a layup, and fell on the ground. I didn’t think he got fouled. He goes, ‘that was a foul man, the ****?’.”
Those sorts of conversations aren’t exactly pleasant, but learning how to handle difficult people is part of the job. And that sort of communication skill is important in nearly every field of professional work.
“The main goal for being an intramural referee is learning the transferable skills that are going to help you in any job that you go on into,” said Winter. “You learn a lot about yourself, and then you develop skills that are going to help you be a productive member of whatever group that you leave campus being.”
The intramural sports schedule is a grueling one, especially in basketball. Nearly every night of the week, there are a host of games at IM East and IM West. New games tip-off at the top of every hour from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
That’s not to mention all the other intramural sports that need officiating. The Spring 2023 sports list is a long one, including sports like indoor soccer, volleyball and ice hockey. Those all need officiating.
The problem is, interest in reffing isn’t especially high across the country, thanks in large part to the aforementioned poor treatment of officials.
“The predominant reason that we have an official shortage nationwide is because of the ill treatment of referees in youth sports, in high school sports, in college sports, it’s running rampant everywhere in the country,” said Winter. “In intramurals, we get that same exact thing. If I'm going to tell you that you’re going to make $13 an hour but you have to get yelled and screamed at, most people aren’t going to sign up for that.”
Before COVID-19, there were over 200 officials working intramurals at MSU. Now, there are roughly 125.
Recruiting isn’t the easiest thing in the world with all that negativity, although Winter and the management at IM have still found some success through advertising the benefits that come along with officiating.
“We like to try to tout the positive aspects of being a referee - the friendships that you’ll make, the skills that you’ll learn,” said Winter. “Yeah, we pay a little bit of money, but it’s more about the experience and more about the development that you get from being a referee.”
Winter and the IM staff aren’t being especially picky with applicants, considering the staffing shortage. There are certainly still qualifications and hoops to jump through: one must be a student, submit an application, perform an in-person interview, pass a rules test and participate in training. However, Winter is looking for anyone that wants to give it a try.
“If you ever have an interest, if it kind of sparks your interest as something that you might want to try, I strongly recommend that you try it,” said Winter. “I can’t speak highly enough about being a referee; all the quality relationships that I’ve built from my officiating community are just outstanding, and actually, it’s life changing.”