What's It Like Being a NCAA Basketball Referee?

What's It Like Being a NCAA Basketball Referee?

The technology that allows for instant replay at sporting events also allows for immediate rehashing on social media. The former can aid referees, and the latter can harm their reputation. "In today's society, I'm much more careful of who I'm talking to and what I'm talking about," veteran men's basketball official D.J. Carstensen, who has been one of about 100 referees at the last 10 NCAA Tournaments, told ValuePenguin. "I would never want to say something that could be taken out of context. So if I'm asked generically about officiating, I try not to be specific about personalities, coaches, players, that kind of thing." Carstensen instead offered us the details of his profession, which involves much more than his zebra-like attire, handy whistle and positioning on the hardcourt.

How did you become a ref?

Well, I played basketball at Utica College in New York. Then I coached; I was actually the head coach at Proctor High School in Utica for two years. When our three city high schools consolidated and my coaching job was eliminated, somebody said, “If you want to stay in the game, why don’t you get into officiating?” So that’s what I did. I started at the lowest of low levels: fifth and sixth grade. I kept working my way up, got on the local high school board: Board 51 in Utica. I became active, started doing varsity high school games.

Is there a certification process at the prep level?

At our high school, you had to pass the test to get onto the board. Then you had to go through a probationary status for a couple years before what they called “active status,” which then put you into the pool to be eligible for varsity games. You got rated by your fellow officials, which were usually more experienced guys. Once you were put into the varsity pool, the high school board has their own assigner, and then he would give out the games as he saw fit.

How did you rise to the college ranks?

I was fortunate enough to get involved with CBOA, which was the Collegiate Basketball Officials’ Organization, and got involved with a small college, which I did for eight to 10 years.

In our area, that was done at a recommendation level. So you get recommended, and people ask around, and your candidacy gets voted on or accepted, and then you became a member of CBOA, which the ECAC -- the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference -- was a part of; that’s where the assignments came out of. When I was getting started, Jim Burr, who’s probably as well-known an official, as good an official, as there was and has been, was the assigner. He was obviously still refereeing at the time, but he was also the one assigning the games.

To get to the Division 1 level, the next step usually is to attend a camp that’s put on by a particular conference. So there’s different Division 1 conferences that will have camps, which are teaching camps, and also looking for officials, some to hire and some to put on their radar, as far as younger guys. The first conference that I got into was the Mid-American Conference, and it sort of snowballed from there.

So officials work for conferences, not the NCAA?

Yes, basketball officials are independent contractors and are paid on a per-game basis. So you could work one week, you could work eight weeks. You have an individual contract with each conference that you work for, and it’s a one-year contract. I think that would surprise some people. So every year it’s got to be renewed.

Can you work for multiple conferences at the same time?

Yes, most guys do. You sort of prioritize the conferences, so when the late summer or fall rolls around, your number one conference -- or your top priority -- you accept games from them. Then you close out those dates with the other conferences, and then they fill in other open dates that you have, and it sort of filters down your priority list, as far as conferences go. I work for the Big Ten, the Atlantic 10, the Mid-American Conference, the Horizon League, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and America East.

We're assuming geography is a factor when making your priorities...

I look back at some of those days when I was driving two hours and 45 minutes through a blizzard to get to a small college game, and I think the travel, especially as you get older, wears on you. The travel’s not as easy; there are fewer flights, and the planes are smaller now. The two hours you do the game is the easiest part. People don’t understand what you go through -- the stress, especially living in the northeast, where you wake up and you wonder if your flight’s on time.

I fly pretty much to every game. There are some I’ll drive to, but take last week as an example: Tuesday I was in Philadelphia, Wednesday I was in Detroit, Thursday I was in Milwaukee, Friday I was in Pittsburgh and Saturday I was in Connecticut. You can’t drive to those. I should mention: Most of the guys that I know that travel a lot, myself included, have a good wife at home… or you’re not going to be able to do this.

How else do you decide which conferences to work for?

A lot of it for guys is that the people who gave you your start, you tend to remain loyal to them even as you progress up and get into the larger conferences. And then obviously, just like anything, even within Division 1, you’re trying to improve your opportunities there. Getting a chance to work at the Big Ten, or the ACC, or the Big 12, conferences like that.

What is a day in your working life like?

Most of the time, it’s getting up around 4:30 or 5 a.m. to take the shuttle over to the airport, because you’re always trying to be on the first flight out. That way, if there’s a problem, there’s a plan B. Then it's getting into my destination city mid-morning and, for me, having a second job, I try and get some work done. Then later in the afternoon, if I get a chance to lay down for an hour or so, I’ll do that. Then I get up and get cleaned up and pack my bag, get ready to head over to the arena. It’s pretty much like Groundhog Day: It starts all over the next day.

Are you able to telecommute for your other job?

Yes. I’m fortunate, because it’s amazing what you can get done through email and cell phone. Considering my real job -- I’ve been with on_current="true" url="http://www.eriematerials.com/" target="_blank" nofollow="true"Erie Materials, this is my 20th year -- I deal with large general contractors, and architects, and developers, trying to get our products either specified in jobs, or into the projects themselves. A lot of times I'm communicating with your customers, and they don’t know that I'm sitting in a Marriott somewhere. They assume I'm just on the road in their territory.

But a lot of the people know that I officiate, so it’s a good talking point. And people view it as a position of integrity and character. So when you’re meeting people early on, I think it gives me some credibility with people, that they figure that if I'm in that kind of position then I have to be trustworthy. It opens some doors that way.


Do your refereeing peers have "real" jobs too?

Not all of them, but most of them. Some just do the officiating, but the vast majority would have second jobs.

Back to your second career: What's your routine once you're at the stadium?

As officials, we get there an hour and a half before the game. Sometimes it's earlier, but the protocol is to be there an hour and a half before the game. You don’t referee with the same guys all the time, but most of the time you know the guys you’re refereeing with. You might be with them four or five times during the year, but it’s never the same three guys.

You usually try and ride over together. When you get there, you’re getting ready both mentally and physically. A lot of that is just stretching, and if somebody needs any treatment, those kinds of things. Then you usually have some time spent on the game, the teams, the things that you’re wanting to focus on throughout the game.

What might be an example of something you would review pregame?

Right now, early this season, there were a lot of rule changes. Twenty-five, I believe. So those are things, early on, that as a group you talk about; we’re helping each other by going over the changes. Because if you’ve done it long enough, whenever there are rule changes, you’ve got to get the old rules out of your head and get the new rules in. A lot of it becomes habit-forming. Early on you talk about the new rule changes, talk about different situations and things to be aware of.

That takes us up to the opening tip of the game. What's next for you?

I always get some butterflies before every game. There’s always that nervous excitement. Once the ball gets tipped up, officials -- and I don’t think people realize this part -- are running; there’s definitely the physical fitness aspect to the game. But at the highest level, it’s the mental aspect that goes into it. You’ve got to be mentally zeroed in for 40 minutes. So once that ball goes in, your mind is on the game.

For me personally, what I try and do is just referee in four-minute segments. There is a media time-out around the 16-minute mark, the 12-minute mark, the eight-minute mark and the four-minute mark. So I really focus hard for four minutes, then another four minutes, and sort of break the game down into smaller games itself.

From a physical standpoint, what can you do to prepare yourself for the grind?

I don’t know if you can ever prepare. You prepare the best you can, but I’m sore right now because it’s different: running, starting, stopping, using your calf muscles, your hamstrings. Stretching is a big deal, especially as you get older. The stretching, yoga, core, more emphasis on those kind of things to help you get ready for the season. I try to work out all the time, but definitely as we head into the season, I get more focused, and the workouts ramp up a little bit.

During the game, what determines where you are on the court?

You have a referee, umpire one and umpire two. So the referee, usually before the game, initiates discussion and is usually the more experienced of the three. But once the game starts, everybody’s on an equal footing as far as responsibilities go. If there’s any final decisions, the referee, with the information from his partners, might address that situation with the coaches. But once you’re on the court, all three guys are fully as important.

We saw you huddle with your fellow officials during instant replays... How has the

advent of this technology affected your job?

It’s different in the sense that nothing gets by. If you made a mistake fifteen years ago, nobody knew about it. If it happens today, it’s viral in ten minutes. One misconception that people have is that there is no accountability with officials. That just couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a lot of accountability. A lot of leagues will go through the game film and send you clips of plays to watch on an iPad: good calls; calls that they think that you missed; and then calls they just want you to take a look at. You’ve got everything spelled out.

When do you typically review the game's calls?

If I’m not driving, I like to look at it in the car. There’s always a play -- or two or three -- in my mind that I want to look at. So I’ll try to find those. Later that night, or on the plane in the morning, I’m looking at the game, or sections of the game. The video is very helpful.

The best officials are the ones that are good self-evaluators. So they’re watching film to watch the calls that they make, but also the positioning. Or if they did miss a call, they're asking, "Why did I miss the call?" And then you see yourself on tape and you realize that you were out of position. Or maybe you called something out of your area, your responsibility area. So you make a mistake, but then you don’t allow that same mistake to consistently occur. Besides the play-calling and what happens on the court, the other big aspect of officiating is you have to be a good communicator. The NBA is a players’ game, but college basketball is a coach’s game. Being able to communicate with coaches, especially at times when they’re emotional, is very important. The longer you officiate, you learn and understand what works best in certain circumstances. And that only comes from experience, or from people, mentors, giving you insight into those things.

Without naming names, of course, do you get very, very familiar with coaches' personalities, styles and teams?

Yes, being aware of those things only gives you a better chance to succeed. And it works the other way too: The coaches, they know who you are. When you first come on, your goal is just to survive. Because coaches, they like familiarity, they like to know who’s doing their games. They’ve got a feel for maybe they way the game is called, or what they can say and what they can’t say, that kind of thing. When you’re a younger official, and you are an unknown, that makes it more difficult. But you just try to get through those situations, and all of a sudden you’re in your fourth or fifth year, and you’re accepted. And you keep progressing.

What's it liking making an important call in real-time, knowing that a coach -- and perhaps half of the crowd -- might yell at you for it?

You definitely get used to that. Everybody that’s at a game, or watching a game, has an angle. When you’re cheering for a team, you only see things one way. Often times, we'll get two different fans and wonder if they were watching the same game. There are only three people who don’t have an interest in what’s going on, and those are the three officials. So their job is to call the game as clearly and as fairly as they can. And you don’t do it to be popular; you do it because you want to do right by the game and get plays right. That's the number one goal.

Have you ever gotten a big, perhaps game-deciding call incorrect?

I get plays wrong, but I don’t know if I’ve gotten a big one wrong, you know, at the end of the game kind. I was involved in two plays at the end of the game that I got correct, the crew got correct, but it still got a lot of exposure, which is never a lot of fun. It’s stressful. But you don’t do it to worry about what other people think. You do it, like I said, to get the plays right. Somebody’s got to be the gatekeeper of the game, and that’s where the officials come in, making things an even playing field.

Speaking of the stakes, what is special about working during "March Madness" from an official's perspective?

In the NCAA tournament, when somebody loses, their season’s over with, which can be said of a conference tournament. I think the conference tournaments are harder because the teams are trying to get to the NCAA tournament. Once they get to the NCAA tournament, for a lot of the teams, it’s a goal achieved.

But the NCAA tournament, it’s great to be there because it carries some credibility in what you do. The flip-side of that is, officials joke, that really only bad things can happen. If you do a good job, nobody says anything, but if there’s a fall or something that happens, it becomes national news. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that opportunity.

What advice would you offer to a current of future referee hoping to be an official on the biggest stage?

I would encourage it. We have a shortage of officials, and being one is a great way to stay in the game. It’s not an easy job: There was a time where I was wondering if I was going to ever get an opportunity at the Division 1 level, because it’s very difficult; there are a lot of good officials that never get an opportunity. It’s important to be thankful for where you’re at, and to try to be as good as you can be where you’re at, instead of always looking ahead. Because when you spend your time always looking ahead, I think it can take away from your abilities to be as good as you can be.

The problem we have is when people are starting out, parents and fans can be brutal, and it discourages young people from getting into it. They’re like, “I don’t want to deal with this.” But if you go into it, you can’t go into it worrying about what other people think. If you ask any official, they know if they’ve done a good job or not as soon as the game’s over. You have a feel for it. There are three teams on the court, and 99% of the time, the best team is the one wearing the stripes.

Andrew is a former Associate Editor at ValuePenguin. He focused on an array of personal finance topics, from money management to career development.