Black Refs Unhappy to Be Left Out

Juan Perez Jr., Omaha World-Herald, March 7, 2011

A lack of diversity among referees chosen for this year’s state high school basketball tournaments has a group of black refs, community members and politicians crying foul.

“The numbers don’t lie,” said Chanell Hickey, a 10-year officiating veteran who said he’s never been selected to work a state tournament.

“I don’t want to call it racism, but I just don’t know what else to call it.”

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They argue:

» Roughly 150 referees were eligible to work the boys and girls state basketball tournaments, and nearly half were chosen.

» But of the 22 eligible refs who are black, only two were selected.

Both of the black referees were assigned to this week’s boys tournament. No black referees were chosen for the recently completed girls tournament.

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“It’s difficult for me right now to respond to the concern,” [Steve Shanahan, interim director of the Nebraska School Activities Association] said. But he said the NSAA was willing to listen to any concerns and would consider suggestions to improve the student and fan experience.

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An invitation to officiate the state’s top-flight athletic tournaments is a big honor. The black refs say their concerns are about more than just personal pride, however. They said they feel the racial disparity mars the spirit of fairness at the heart of amateur sports.

They question the NSAA vetting procedures, saying that it is difficult to learn how referees are selected or rejected to serve in state tournaments. They said the unknowns of the selection process can feed perceptions of bias against minority candidates.

Plus, if an all-white officiating crew calls a game between a predominantly white team and a predominantly black team, they say, questions about fairness can arise in the bleachers and on the bench.

Four of the eight Class A teams in this year’s boys tournament are predominantly black.

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The color of a referee’s skin shouldn’t matter, Lee [Thomas Lee, head coach of Omaha Central’s girls team] said. “But, unfortunately, it does.”

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