As I went to referee my first basketball games, my wife worried about crazy fans yelling at me.
She has heard the horror stories of fans going after officials verbally and physically around the country. That has helped lead to a huge shortage in officials for youth sports.
She heard about the crazy Missoula fan screaming curse words at Mike Anderson, who is one of the best high school officials the state has ever seen, a few years ago.
I told her not to worry. I have been called worse things than any sports officials by football fans of the Montana State Bobcats, Montana Grizzlies and Carroll College Fighting Saints. (Click here for the podcast version of this column.)
Someone on the website eGriz mentioned my wife and kids while slamming me years ago. The same thing happened with Carroll fans on an NAIA chat site.
One time I visited Pork Chop Johns after a Montana Tech-Carroll College football game and I had an old bag of a Carroll fan accost me because she said I favored the Orediggers.
She was like 108 years old, and she hated my guts. And this was after Carroll won.
In 2003, The Montana Standard got dozens of letters from Bobcat fans demanding that Matt Vincent and I be fired because we poked fun at, among other things, the number of California players on the MSU roster.
I lost count years ago of the number of anonymous letters I got attacking my character, temperament and writing ability because people do not agree with my opinion. Someone sent me a letter calling me an egomaniac and demanding that I step down as executive director of the Butte Sports Hall of Fame — less than two weeks after I was named executive director of the Butte Sports Hall of Fame.
So, with all of these hate comments directed at me from people who just generally do not like the person I have become, there is no way something a fan is going to yell over a split-second decision on the basketball court is going to hurt my feelings.
You do not like that I called a block instead of a charge? Yell away. That pales in comparison to the letter I got for a former Butte lawyer titled “Bill Foley is an a——.”
Yes, I am one of the newest members of the Montana Officials Association for basketball. I took the test and passed a few weeks ago.
Last Friday, I refereed my first high school games — a pair of junior varsity games in Anaconda — after working the Special Olympics and a handful of junior high and grade school games.
I am not going to announce that I am a good official because it is not easy to be a good official. One thing I found out is that it is way easier to make a call from the stands.
I am, however, studying like I have a final in a Mike Laslovich political science class at the University of Montana. I have been reading and watching a ton of YouTube videos.
That is because I want to be good. I plan to be good.
Hopefully, you will see me officiating varsity games in the next couple of years or so. If my old-man hips hold up, that is.
For years, I have been writing about the need for more officials in every high school sport. I always had the excuse that I had to write about the games, so I could not be an official.
After leaving my job as a full-time sportswriter, though, I thought I still had an excuse. I have torn labrums in both of my hips. I am working hard with Diamond Dallas Page Yoga and my exercise bike to try to avoid surgery.
There is no way, I figured, that I could withstand the punishment of running up and down the court to referee basketball.
Enter Mike Parent, my friend and longtime member of the MOA.
Mike sat next to me at Montana Tech’s men’s basketball game against Dickinson State recently, and he worked me like a coach trying to get a call. He was not going to take no for an answer.
My excuse, he said, was invalid.
He was going to make me put up or shut up.
“Look at me,” Mike said. “I’m fat and old and I can still get up and down the court. You can do it.”
Then, Mike lent me his rule book so I could study for the test. After I passed, he lent me his officials manual.
“It tells you where to go before the fans do,” Mike said with a laugh.
Now that I have a few games under my belt, I have to tell you that I am glad Mike was as persistent as a little kid demanding an ice cream cone.
That is because it turns out that officiating is really fun. You get to be a part of the game, and the coach cannot take you out.
Getting to know some of the young players is payment enough, but the payment is even better.
Really, the money you make to officiate is not bad at all.
You get paid $48 for subvarsity and $70 for varsity. That is going to go up to $75 in the next year or two.
Usually, you work more than one subvarsity game. So, counting per diem, you are heading home with more than $100 for each day you referee. At least. For about 3 hours of work.
On the Saturday of the Santa Slammer travel tournament in Anaconda, I worked 12 games, and games were spaced 45 minutes apart. At $25 a game, I went home with $300, which was enough to pay for my entire costume, shoes and all.
You telling me that as a college student you cannot use that kind of extra cash? You cannot use it if you are a parent paying for a college student?
The next Saturday, I worked 11 games with the infamous Shawn Wetzel in Dillon, and I took home $275, plus gas money.
By the way, the next Montana Tech auction should include a prize to referee 10 games with Wetzel. It would sell for thousands. We laughed so much that it hurt.
Starting to officiate at my age probably is not ideal. Butte Central basketball legend John Sullivan, one of my childhood heroes, pointed that out to me for the peanut gallery in Anaconda.
Yes, I am pretty old to be starting officiating. But, at 48, I’m like eight years younger than Ron Hasquet, another first-year official.
If we can do it, your excuse is probably invalid.
I am sure that I am in for some heckling, like I got from Sully, who helped lead the Maroons to the 1984 Class A State title when I was 10. I am sure there are some subvarsity football referees from Kalispell who would like to see my schedule.
There are probably a lot of readers who would like to yell a thing or two at me as I make my way up and down the basketball court. That’s OK. I can take it.
Just hold off on the anonymous letters.
— Bill Foley, who really is an a——, can be reached at email@example.com.Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Great column Bill!!
Good for you Bill, good luck in your new career very satisfying a whole new kind of competing.