Consider the basketball referee.
Virtually every tweet of his whistle draws boos from someone. Fans, coaches and players frequently say, "The ref cost us that game." But they never say, "The ref won that one for us." The pay is not great, the travel can be tiring and the fans can be unforgiving.
What kind of person becomes a basketball official?
First of all, he must be able to tolerate, even enjoy, pressure.
"If you don't like to be yelled at and you can't stand heat, then this is no place for you," says Joe Forte, pointing to the action on the O'Connell High School basketball court during the Arlington school's recent holiday invitational tournament.
The court is the place for Forte, 32, a basketball referee for seven years. "Crowds don't bother me," he says. "In fact, I like it when it's noisy. People get the excitement going in a game."
Typical of most high school and college basketball officials, Forte, a full time salesman, does not rely on officiating as the sole source of income for him and his family. In fact, considering how hard most officials work for their $27 per varsity high school game (less for junior varsity, more for college), it seems probable that, as Forte says, "guys don't ref for the money."
Instead, in many cases they work, as does Forte, because they want to be a part of the game. Forte, a former New York City high school player, attended High Point College in North Carolina on a basketball scholarship. After graduating, he coached in North Carolina for three years before moving to Virginia to teach at Groveton elementary school, where there was no team to coach.
"I was divorced from the game and I hated it," he recalls. "So I thought I'd start blowing the whistle. With all my playing and coaching, it didn't seem like a strange thing to do. I had a lot of feel for it."
Forte is momentarily distracted by the familiar sound of fans booing an official on the court for making a particular call. "Now that's something that does bother me," he says. "Fans are always so sure they're right when really they don't know the rules. You wish you could stop and explain the rules to them, but, of course, you can't."
An official must know the rules cold. He must study rule books, pass written and on-court tests and gain certification before he is allowed to work scholastic games regularly. Area high school officials are certified by the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials.
Forte cites four basic necessities of a referee:
"He must be in good physical condition. He has to get into proper position so he can get a good angle on the play. He can't hesitate in making the call. And he must sell the call - make it strong and decisive so people say he knows what he's doing. You get less flack that way."
An official who is aware of these basics can control the game. "You have to be in control," Forte emphasizes.
Only by watching an official during game conditions can the difficulty of maintaining control be fully appreciated.
Fifteen minutes before taking the court to work the game between O'Connell and Bishop O'Hara of Philadelphia, Forte and his game partner, Jim C. Connor, change into zebra-striped shirts, black pants, black ripple-soled shoes and black warm-up jackets. They test their whistles. Forte opens up a loose-leaf notebook with rules, charts and tips for officials which the men review together.
"Let's keep things under control out there," Forte says in summation. And let's help each other out. Let's communicate." The men take the court.
The game is sloppy in the first quarter. Forte and Connor call several fouls on both teams, attempting to establish control. Both teams are aggressive and Forte calmly steps between two players who exchange shoves after falling to the floor.
By half-time, blatant fouling has been curtailed though the teams maintain their fast pace, O'Connell, the host team and clearly the crowd's favorite, is losing by 14 points and there is the predictable grumbling about "bad calls" by some fans. Both officials relax in their office, toweling perspiration off their faces, sipping soft drinks.
The second half is more frenzied than the first. With O'Connell rallying early in the third quarter, Forte calls a charge against an O'Connell player. For the first time in the game the gym erupts in boos. The guilty player stands with hands on hips and pats the ball with his foot, causing it to roll away from Forte who was about to pick it up. The player retrieves the ball at Forte's request, hands it to him and apologizes.
O'Connell ties the game, 43-43, at the end of the third quarter. The fans are on their feet for most of the fourth quarter as the score see-saws back and forth. With 1:55 left in the game and O'Connell leading 57-54, two calls against O'Connell, one by each official, bring typical fan reactions - catcalls, heads thrust backward in disbelief and an irate young man shouting his objections from court side.
Regulation play ends in a 60-60 tie and O'Connell eventually wins in overtime, 66-64, but not before one key O'Connell player fouls out, Forte is forced to whistle a coach off the court and back to the bench, and two more temper flareups are called. But there are no ejections, no injuries and no post-game incidents.
For the referees, it's all in a night's work.