Tuesday, July 23, 2013(Yes, I lied about the next title. Sue me.)
There's a contradiction at the heart of officiating. Those of us who volunteer our time to help officiate a sport - and I suspect those who get paid to do it - do so because we love the sport. We invest countless hours and huge sums of money because we think roller derby is the most awesome competitive event in the universe. And yet the only way to be good at officiating, to really serve the sport, is to remain emotionally detached from the game itself.
When you're the one keeping score, you can't be jumping up and down screaming during a come-from-behind power jam in the final minute. When you're a penalty box timer, you can't comfort the skater sitting in front of you even though you've seen her 2-3 times a week for a year. When you're tracking penalties, you can't scream at frustration because the coach (with whom you've consumed gallons of beer) does something really, really stupid. If you were still just a fan, you could express every emotion you wanted. But you're an official, so you can't say a word. You just stand there trying to put on your calm face when all you want to do is cheer/cry/hug.
I'm not a referee. I'm an NSO, a Non-Skating Official. From my perspective, the actual in-game job of a referee is much more difficult than being an NSO. You have to be a great skater so that you can call penalties & count points without thinking about skating. And your brain has to be quick enough to see the action, absorb it, and then (if necessary) make the appropriate hand signal, verbal cue, and whistle - all in about a second. However, the fact that reffing is so challenging probably has a silver lining. When you're a ref, you always have something to do.
When you're an NSO, there's lots of time just waiting for something to happen. And this is very dangerous, because you can get caught up in the game. You know, the game you love? The reason you're spending every Saturday night hours from home wearing a stupid pink shirt in a loud, sweaty skating rink? Yeah, if you start watching it, being a fan again, you're going to loose concentration and screw things up. Sometimes those mistakes can even effect the outcome of the game.
Trying to not care about something you care very much about so you can do the job - that's the simple way that being an official is hard. It gets worse than that, however, and in a way which likely effects refs and nso's equally. In Roller Derby, unlike professional sports, the officials are affiliated with a particular league. You go to their scrimmages, you attend their practices, sometimes you get involved in meetings. You spend time with skaters and coaches and volunteers, and one day you realize that every one you spend time with is in roller derby. You've found a home, one big (mostly) happy family, all working together, and it's great.
Except it's all wrong. The day will come, sooner or later, when you realize that you're not one of them, never will be, no how matter it might feel now. One day you realize that your league is really their league. You're just a volunteer. It's a sad moment, heartbreaking even. I suspect every roller derby official has felt it.
Imagine this: you decide to become a roller derby referee. So you take the fresh meat class right along with the newbie skaters. Every week you sweat, fall, and hurt yourself together. You keep each other going, encouraging and cheering and consoling, all of it together. And then the day comes when you're and official and they're a skater, and suddenly you're not friends anymore? You don't care when they go to their first scrimmage? You don't eagerly anticipate the day they make roster the first time? You spend countless hours with a team and you don't want them to win games, to go to tournaments, to excel? What are you, a sociopath?
There's this great scene in the movie Almost Famous, where the young writer calls his mentor for advice. The protagonist is sad and confused and suffering from conflicted loyalties. The mentor recognizes the problem at once: that the aspiring reporter has made friends with the rock stars. That's not what they need though - rock stars have lots of friends, or at least "friends." You're not doing the music (sport) or the musicians (skaters) and favors by getting that close to them.
And here's where it gets better: we officials do have a family in roller derby, one that doesn't include the skaters or the fans. Eventually you learn that the people you really care about, the ones that understand you and are happy to see you every weekend - they're the other officials! There's about 20 of them at every bout, more at big events. Although you'll probably always have a soft spot for your team, and feel a bit saddened by the distance from those you once cared so much about, it's the other nso's and refs that make the sport worth it. At least for me.