Mike McCarthy made headlines months after being fired from the Green Bay Packers sidelines when in February the former NFL head coach berated a crew of high school basketball officials as they exited a gym in Pulaski, Wis. It was the latest video evidence of the type of verbal abuse that has caused the average official to quit the job within three years of starting, leading to a nationwide shortage of officials and prompting state athletic associations to attempt to quell fan rage through "Cool It!" campaigns. Justin Seuser has seen it firsthand from multiple angles — as athletic director at Buhler (Kan.) High School and as a collegiate basketball official. AB senior editor Paul Steinbach asked for Seuser's perspective on both professions and the problem of fan behavior.
How do you reconcile your professional schedules?
What I do officiating-wise does not interfere with my professional duties as an athletic director. I attend every function that we're involved with. I obviously know our athletic and activity schedules two years in advance, so I go through our assigning website that we use and block out the dates that I'm busy. That way, I'm fulfilling my professional duties as an athletic director, and my officiating duties do not interfere or overlap. And there will be some Saturdays where I'll go to an activity during the day and then I'll officiate that night. My professional job is important, so I make sure that I'm there to support our kids and coaches and programs.
As an AD, do you do anything special for officials visiting Buhler?
We try to do some things to accommodate them. We give them reserved parking right in front of the gym doors, we escort them on and off the floor, and we try to give them a hot meal after they're done. Where we're located, it's 10 or 15 minutes to go get fast food. We try to take care of them that way. We try to make them feel welcome and comfortable and just appreciate them. We try to do whatever we can to make their experience while they're here as enjoyable as possible.
Do you do anything to foster sportsmanship beyond pregame announcements?
We always put one of the sportsmanship-themed messages through the air. We also do another message that talks about recruiting officials and how to get involved and where they can go to register. The other thing, as far as making sure the atmosphere is civil, our league does a great job. Typically, not only is the home administration onsite, but usually the visiting team will have administration onsite, so they can monitor their fans. We're always observant of situations and always try to be proactive instead of reactive. It's just one of those things where you just try to communicate with people and sometimes encourage them to remember sportsmanship and the reason why were there, which is to support our kids.
What else can a school do to refill the officiating ranks?
We have several staff in our building who officiate, so a couple years ago, a couple of us tried to have a meeting maybe once a season to let kids know about upcoming opportunities in the next season to officiate, or summer opportunities or opportunities once they graduate. We have several staff who have donated some of their uniform items that they don't use or have outgrown to help kids get started. We've always kind of thrown around the idea of starting a class. There are a lot of things that go with that. You just can't put a new class in. It has to fall in line with curriculum. It has to fall in line with your schedule, and all those kinds of things. You have to have staff to teach it. But we just had one of our staff members reach out to me and our principal again about continuing to look at the possibility. I gave him some ideas to get us some more information on other schools that are teaching it, to reach out to KSHSAA, our state association, to get some feedback on what's worked and what hasn't, to give us some more clear direction on how we could put a proposal together if that's what we decide.
Have you ever had to intervene with parents as an AD?
There are a couple situations. Again, everybody's human. We have emotions. We care and we're passionate, so when you can get people on that same page again, it helps to have some calm conversation to deescalate, and they've done a nice job. I'm very fortunate that they've come back and focused on our purpose — supporting their son or daughter in our activities.
How have you stuck with officiating amid all the attrition?
A lot of people talk about all the verbal abuse. I guess I have pretty thick skin. I'm wired a little bit differently. I can tune it out pretty well. But the way that I look at it and the reason I've never given it up is, one, athletics have been a part of my life since I was really young, so this is a way for me to stay in shape, to be involved with the game and give back to the game. And I tell my kids and our coaches here, you have to control what you can control, and that's your effort and your attitude. That's all you can do. If you do that, everything else will fall into place.
Should a thick skin be a requirement of officiating?
I think sometimes we may not be as thick-skinned as we need to be. Some people view it as, well, you shouldn't have to be so thick-skinned, and there may be some accuracies there. But the other thing is I think sometimes when opportunities don't come as fast as officials want them to, they get discouraged, so I think there's a combination there. I've been very fortunate to be put with people who have given me opportunities. Now, once I was given opportunities, what I did with those opportunities was up to me. But I've been fortunate both at the high school level and collegiate level to get opportunities to work and excel.
Have you been tested by fans as an official?
There are some really extreme cases, some unfortunate situations that happen in our game days, but there's a human element involved in all these things. I guess I always try to look at the big picture. You understand that with parents it's their kids you're talking about, or it's a coach's livelihood. So when you think about those things with perspective and you try to put yourself in their shoes, you get why people sometimes take it a little too far.
Ever feel like hanging up your whistle?
You gave up high school officiating once you became a high school AD, and you've given up football entirely. What about basketball keeps you going?
I played football, basketball, golf and baseball in high school. In college, football and basketball were my passions. Football is fun. You enjoy it because you get to go with the same crew every night, so you get that camaraderie. In football, everything is a lot farther away. There's a lot of down time in between plays. I think the reason basketball has always stuck with me is just because of the intimate environment that you're in. Everybody is a lot closer to you. There aren't a lot of stoppages in play. We don't take 20 or 25 seconds off in between every play. It's constant back and forth. So I think probably just the engagement of not only the atmosphere but just the continuous nature of the play, it keeps you on your toes all the time. That's what's kept me in it.
Any last words of advice for today's officials?
If you want to be good at something, then you work to get better at your craft. It's like any other career. Treat people right and you do things the right way. Everything else, how you elevate, will take care of itself. Be humble in the opportunities you've been given, work hard and go from there. That's what I try to do.
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "High school AD moonlights as college referee." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.