Notes of Note from John F. Ince


Sports have alway helped define the rhythms of my life.  Although I no longer play competitive sports, I’m still an active mountain biker and hiker.   And … heck it’s nice to reminisce about the good ole days …

• At Garden City High School in New York, I  played  three sports: tennis, basketball and lacrosse and despite my puny size, 5’10’ – 130 lbs, they somehow decided I was  was pretty good and awarded me the schools highest athletic honor  … the Gallagher Cup … Seemed like a big deal at the time … but today … humm.

• At Harvard, I still hadn’t grown much, but somehow got the ball in the net enough that they name me an all American lacrosse player … twice … Yikes …  three times All Ivy and leading scorer in the Ivy League.  Later when playing  club lacrosse I actually was  runner up for the national scoring title … can’t remember who the top scorer was but heck … You know what they say … “The older you get, the better you used to be.”  Of course, today, lacrosse has become so popular that you could find three kids on any JV high school team that are better stick handlers  than I was in my prime.  Did I mention that when I played the game, all the sticks were made by the Indians in Canada and shipped down here, where we all raced to find the one stick that felt best in our hands … since each stick was different.   This is true … and unfortunately it dates me more than I care to acknowledge.

• The other thing that’s quite amazing as I reflect back …  at Harvard  lacrosse and tennis were both Spring sports, which kinda bummed me out, could I loved both and could only play one.  I chose lacrosse, but decided to try my hand at squash (Winter Sport) since it required a lot of the same skills as tennis.   Well guess what … by the time I’d graduated, I had made my way up to #2 on the ladder at Harvard … and in each of my years playing varsity squash there, Harvard won the national championship … not exactly like winning the NCAA basketball championships … but still pretty cool.

Speaking of basketball … that was and still is my favorite sport, though I at 5’10, I figured my chances of becoming an all-star NBA power forward were slim … (Still haven’t given up hope on that  completely) …. but after squash practice every day … I would go up to the top floor of Hemenway gym, which was on the campus of Harvard Law School … and shoot hoops in some of the law students … some pretty good players … one of whom … would one day become the country’s most famous former basketball player and today shoots hoops at his private court … located … you guessed it … in the White House.

•  Here’s a shot of me feeding Cle Landolt against Brown in 1968 … In 1992 Harvard  inducted me into their  Sports Hall of Fame…. What we they thinking?

• Today I referee lacrosse for high schools and if you ever get a chance to be a high school ref … my advice is “DON’T … the coaches don’t care who you were … all they care about is getting the calls they want … But that’s another story … and here’s a story I wrote about my experiences as a ref for U.S. Lacrosse Magazine.

True Confessions of a Lacrosse Referee

By John F. Ince

(1634 words)

This was lacrosse in all its glory.  Northern California’s two best junior teams, Southern Marin and Skyline were both undefeated and locked in a tense, but well played contest. The score was knotted at 3, with 2 minutes to play. The weather was gorgeous, a crisp 60 degrees, with the sun setting in the West just over Mount Tamalpais in a scene worthy of a picture postcard.  During a timeout, I walked over to the sideline and chatted with a few parents.  I said, “It doesn’t get much better than this: excellent teams, good coaches and a perfect day.  If only we could have good officials.”

I joked of course.  I knew that, along with my partner Craig Backmon, we were officiating a good game.  We had been calling the game fairly loosely, with only a few technical fouls, two personals, and the rest had been loose ball pushes and holds.  This was my twelfth game in twelve days, and the second game of a doubleheader.  But with my adrenalin pumping, I wasn’t the least bit tired.  Even at 54 years old, I was keeping up with kids one-third my age.  Life was good.

All Hell Broke Loose

But suddenly everything changed.   All it takes is one slight hesitation in a charged situation and all hell will break loose.  After the timeout Southern Marin had the ball, attacking the Skyline goal.  Craig and I had conferred a few moments earlier and agreed that we only wanted to call a clear foul, and let the players, not the officials, determine the outcome of the game.

But then, right in front of me, one of the Skyline players pushed a Southern Marin attackman, with possession, from the rear.  I hesitated a moment because I knew it was a marginal foul, but nevertheless it was a foul, so I threw my flag.  But as I did so I wished I hadn’t, because the push hadn’t created an advantage for the offending team and, in the larger context of the game, it was inconsequential.

Immediately, I heard “Time Out” from the Southern Marin bench and my partner stopped play.  I had not yet called the foul to the scorer’s table, and before doing so; I decided to confer with Craig. Since, I was looking for a way, to avoid determining the outcome of the game, I said to Craig something like, “What did you think?” Craig had not seen either the foul or my flag.  We briefly discussed it and with his consent, I picked up the flag and stuffed it into my pocket, hopefully unnoticed.   We both jogged to our field positions, but I wasn’t feeling good about what just happened.  I sensed trouble ahead.

After the timeout, I heard the Southern Marin coach ask Craig how long the penalty would be.  “No penalty.” Craig shouted and then all hell broke loose. The Southern Marin Coach went ballistic and had to be restrained after being warned by Craig about a possible misconduct.  Matt, the coach, was a former all-American middie at Duke and now stars on the top ranked Marin Lacrosse Club. He knows his stuff and is not one to back down in any dispute.  But eventually, Craig tamed the lion.  I watched the whole encounter feeling smaller by the moment, especially after Skyline got the ball and scored.  Skyline eventually went on to win by a goal, and, in a way. I knew that the Southern Marin coach had been right in his protestations.  But, then again in the larger context of the game, he was not necessarily correct.  These are the conflicting considerations that constantly plague a ref in his attempts to create a level playing field.

We Learn by Analyzing Scar Tissue

Of course even the best officials blow calls.  Larry Geller, a top official and the chief assigner for high school lacrosse in northern California once consoled me,  “Officials learn by analyzing the scar tissue in their psyche.  All officials have scar tissue.  No exceptions.”

This had been my second season refereeing lacrosse, having been conscripted into battle because of the explosion of lacrosse in northern California.    The sport had grown from 48 teams in 1998 to 253 this year and the demand had created an extreme shortage of qualified officials.  Clearly I had learned how to officiate through baptism under fire.  It may not be the most enjoyable form of education, but it does teach you what you need to know very quickly.  Unfortunately the learning process often takes place lying awake at night, replaying particularly embarrassing mistakes and trying to figure out how to do it better next time.

Refs Are Not Always On the Same Page

Not all officials are on the same page philosophically.  We constantly have internal battles and disputes over rules and enforcement techniques.  For example, I take issue with referees who assume that they must always be in complete charge of the game. Instead, a philosophy that assumes refs are fallible, and not always in control is much more realistic, but we don’t want coaches, players and fans to know that.  A good ref, in my mind, is somewhat akin to a benevolent dictator.   By assuming fallibility, we bring coaches in with us as working partners in a cooperative enterprise.  If we blow a call, which inevitably happens, we need to be able to listen to coaches respectfully, admit the mistake, and then take appropriate corrective steps, if possible.

Referees vs. Coaches: Differing Perspectives

Are officials influenced by protestations of coaches?  Yes, of course we are, but in widely varying degrees.  An honorable official never makes up a call.  We to live with our transgressions, but in a situation that could be called either way, we may bend.  It’s human nature and officials are human.  When most effective, a coach’s influence over officials is unconscious, and often delayed.  However, too much protestation may negatively impact the coach in the long term, because the world of lacrosse officiating is very small and refs are constantly comparing notes.

Coaches generally consider it part of their job to work the refs for all they can get.  That’s part of the game, but a good ref learns to be comfortable setting limits for coaches.  You’d be hard pressed to find a coach who didn’t in his more candid moments believe that he does influence the refs.  Differences of opinion are inevitable, because coaches are subjectively reacting to the immediate action before, them while officials are objectively factoring in many considerations that are not immediately apparent to the coaches, players or fans.  What sort of factors?

Four Levels of Good Refereeing

Good referees must consider factors on four distinct levels, all in an instant. First, there is the technical enforcement of rules.  To satisfy the minimum, a good official must have a firm command of the rulebook, the mechanics manual and a sense of evenhandedness.   Lacrosse rules are complex and the official must look in several directions, scanning the field for infractions, looking for off sides, counting for 10-second violations, and monitoring the bench area for illegal procedure or potential unruliness.

Second, good officials should constantly help modulate emotions and manage the game.  A call that is technically correct may not be right when placed in larger context of the game.  Good officials should constantly be monitoring the entire game situation all the way down to the final horn. Ideally they are always taking the pulse of players, coaches and fans and filtering that information through in their calls.  A meaningless and lopsided game where rules are enforced too tightly makes as little sense as a highly charged game where officials let too much go.

Third, officials must keep the game safe, and this involves making unpopular calls.  Unnecessary roughness often brings protests from coaches and players, although parents generally applaud the call, fearing potential injury for their kids. In a game earlier this year in Marin County, no officials showed up and two volunteer parents ended up blowing the whistle.  In that game, two players suffered concussions and another sustained a season ending injury.  Both schools have now instituted a policy that prohibits games being played without certified officials.

Fourth, officials should help make the game more enjoyable.   A good official sets the tone of the game with either positive or negative energy that reflects on everyone involved.  If officials are constantly whistling players and coaches for minor infractions, it can take the fun out of the game.  When I think of enjoyment, I immediately remember my first lacrosse coach, Clarence Nephew at Garden City Junior High School on Long Island.  Coach Nephew’s teams almost always won the league championship and I couldn’t figure out why, because he taught us little about technique or strategy.  But every day at practice he would ask us if I we were enjoying playing lacrosse.  Because we were, we would stay after practice and work extra. I’ve often reflected on the deep wisdom in Clarence Nephew’s approach to coaching, especially when I hear coaches berate their players.  Nowadays, while refereeing, I take every opportunity to ask players if they’re enjoying the game.  If they’re enjoying the sport, improvement and winning flow naturally.

All these competing considerations on all four levels should be taken into a referee’s decision on whether or not to blow the whistle.  Officiating is a huge challenge.  Despite the fact that we’re paid a piddling amount for our efforts, it’s well worth everything we put into it.  My first two years have been enormously satisfying, because the challenge has kept me sharp physically, mentally and emotionally.   Perhaps most important, refereeing has enabled me to participate in the unfolding lacrosse as it grows and matures as a sport on the West Coast and stay involved with a sport of I love.

About the Author

John Ince is a lacrosse referee and freelance writer living in Mill Valley, California.  He was a three time All Ivy and twice All American attackman at Harvard and a club all-star while playing for Brine Lacrosse Club.  Ince began his writing career at Time Inc. as a reporter for Fortune Magazine in the late 1970s and worked on special assignment for Sports Illustrated during that period.

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