History is made at Michigan girls basketball finals; 12 women comprised the four officiating crews
(PHOTO COURTESY: MHSAA)
Grand Rapids – Delonda Little believes opportunity may have collided with history at last weekend’s girls basketball state finals.
For what is believed to be the first time in U.S. high school athletics, the four state championship games held at Calvin College’s Van Noord Arena were officiated by all-female crews.
Little, a native of Detroit and one of 12 officials who worked the games, said she was honored to be part of history, but perhaps even more important was to be seen as a role model for young women who are considering becoming officials. Little said there is a gaping hole in the sport for young, female referees and the four title games contributed to exposing that need.
"The need for officials is great," said Little, who also worked the 2003 finals. "The average age for women officials is 52 so we’re lucky if we get younger officials. I am president of my association in Detroit and we’re always recruiting younger officials. We need them in the sport."
That was exactly the thinking of the Michigan High School Athletic Association in organizing the all-women finals crews. MHSAA executive director Jack Roberts said assistant directors Nate Hampton and Mark Uyl are constantly looking at ways to beef up the recruitment of officials. To have four, three women crews work the finals is creative thinking, Roberts said.
"I think it’s great to have female role models. It might encourage more females to become officials," he said. "A point of emphasis has been to keep officials in the fold. Since we started the program (of promoting officials), we’re losing them.
"I want to give credit to Nate and Mark for their efforts. That’s one of the best things about my job is having people like them working for us."
Uyl said the "very much male-dominated" officiating profession needs to expand and recruiting women could be an ideal solution. Of the 4,000 registered Michigan officials, about 200 are women. In an attempt to draw attention to the lack of numbers, Uyl, a Division I baseball umpire, said the idea was to shine a spotlight on a high level of women officials.
The plan’s origin dates back to early last winter. After the eligibility deadline for basketball officials passed on Dec. 1, the MHSAA began the determination of which officials it wanted to work the finals. Uyl said the organization actually works backward in assigning state tournament games, naming the finals crews first, before going to the quarterfinals, regionals, and districts.
The idea of all-women finals crews was then presented to the MHSAA basketball committee in late January. The officials knew their assignments by early February.
Uyl said the combination of the state finals returning to West Michigan for the first time since 1989 (Grand Valley State) and spotlighting the need for women officials, the MHSAA wanted to test out the novel approach of all-female crews. Uyl said he checked with several Midwest athletic associations and found none which had ever used women exclusively to work the finals.
"Coming here we thought could be an opportunity to make that a focus," Uyl said. "We are thrilled with not just the gender, but that these are qualified officials. It’s an opportunity for women advance in their sport."
Uyl said the assignments weren’t just selecting officials by tenure, reputation or how many state tournaments they’ve worked. The MHSAA has a rating system involving coaches and Uyl said all 12 referees ranked among the top 25 percent of all officials.
Uyl takes exception to anyone who believes the officials were selected on anything but merit. The majority of the 12 officials have not only worked the highest levels of girls high school basketball but have also worked college and boys high school basketball games.
"Girls basketball has come a long way and we came up with ‘what if?’ Could we find a top 12 and have them work the finals," Uyl said. "We think this is a cool thing."
So did the officials, who were divided in their opinions whether being part of a history actually added a level of pressure to their work on Saturday. Cozette Ealy of Detroit said none of her colleagues were worried that the thousands of fans who witnessed the finals thought the MHSAA was making a politically correct gesture as opposed to selecting the best available crews.
"We’ve all officiated at different levels and we know you’ve got to have a tough skin; you’ve got to be able to block things out," Ealy said. "I’ve learned in all my time just to do the best job I can. I feel like if I can hear the comments from the stands, I’m not doing my do diligence on the floor."
"I don’t think there is pressure," Little added. "If it’s going to make history because it’s never happened, that’s great. People expect to see us doing a great job. For us, it’s not we’re going, ‘oh wow.’ This has never happened before, but we have a job to do."
Official Amanda Chapman of St. Clair Shores, who worked her first state final, said she can see a scenario where a young girl sees the all-women crews, goes on to play the sport in high school or college, then elects to stay near the game as an official.
A possible first step in that scenario is four state finals worked well by 12 women.
"I think this is shining a light on an opportunity," she said. "It’s exciting for us, to be part of something like this. It’s not something we take lightly."