‘Respect the Refs’ program honors the stripe shirts

TCR/SCOTT BESTUL The ‘Respect the Refs’ program at R-P allows students to sit courtside during basketball games and bring Gatorade towels and bottles of water to the officials during timeouts. The kids introduce themselves and also have an opportunity to talk with officials.
Chad Smith

Refereeing high school sports is a tough job. After all, how many other professions require someone to make a decision guaranteed to leave 50 percent of the people in the room unhappy? Rushford-Peterson Schools instituted a new effort this year to recognize the men and women in striped shirts who come and work at their sporting events.

R-P Activities Director John Loney instituted a new program called “Respect the Refs,” and he says there’s a very good reason behind it.

“We’ve had dwindling numbers of referees in recent years,” Loney said. “Referees definitely don’t get their due credit for all the work they put in. I had a friend that was doing something similar to this when I lived in northern Minnesota,” he recalled. “I took what he was doing and molded it into what we’re doing now.”

The program focuses on younger kids who are currently playing basketball in the R-P school system. “I try to have the younger boys do it at the boys’ games and younger girls at the girls’ games,” Loney said. “These kids who’ve taken part in Respect the Refs are generally in fourth, fifth, and six grades, and they wear special shirts when it’s their turn on the sidelines at a game.”

The shirts the young kids wear on the sidelines say “Respect the Refs” on the front, right above the black and white stripes that are similar to what referees wear. The shirts also say, “Have you thanked a ref?” on the back.

“It’s in line with the ‘Thank a Ref’ campaign that the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) is running right now,” Loney said. “The kids sit right at courtside and bring Gatorade towels and bottles of water to the officials during timeouts. The kids introduce themselves and talk to the officials during those breaks.

“The kids learn a little about the ins-and-outs of reffing and how tough it is. From what I’ve seen so far when the kids are talking to the officials during breaks, they absolutely love it. It’s been great.”

Loney says he’s thinking of taking the Respect the Refs program a step further next school year. “I’m thinking about a ‘Thank a Ref’ night next year,” he said. “We can recognize not only our varsity refs, but also our large number of lower-level officials who do a thankless job when they come work to our games.

“Those lower-level officials are important too. The younger kids can get a chance to see the referees as something other than an ‘enemy.’ We want them to see the officials as someone they could learn from. It will also give them a chance as they get older to understand the challenges of being a referee.”

Loney also plans on doing a Respect the Refs program during the football season in the fall,  with up to five kids patrolling the sidelines with more Gatorade, towels and bottles of water.

So far there’s been a lot of positive feedback from Trojans’ fans who have noticed the kids sitting at one end of the court wearing the t-shirts that stand out from everyone else’s.

“At the end of every game, I get a picture of the ‘Respect the Refs’ crew each night,” Loney said. “We include the referees with the two-or-three kids we use on a particular night and then I stick it up on the school’s Twitter account. It generally gets a lot of likes and retweets, so the idea is pretty popular.”

Referees are human beings, just like the people sitting in the stands and on the benches at courtside, Loney stressed. “They do make mistakes, just like the rest of us. It’s important to show them some appreciation. The referees in Minnesota are getting a little older and we don’t have a lot of younger officials being groomed to replace them.

“We’re trying to encourage the referees we do have to stay in it. We’re also trying to encourage younger people to try refereeing. After all, if you don’t have enough referees, you can’t play high school sports.”