The three Helena parents thought they were on to me.

I got up at 7 a.m. on Super Bowl Sunday to start refereeing basketball games at 8. I didn’t know which teams would be playing. I didn’t even know the grade or gender of the players until I got there.

Despite torn labrums in each hip, a sore foot and an aching back, I went to the George Foley Memorial Gymnasium at West Elementary to referee six games in a travel tournament.

The reason, these parents figured, was so I could cheat against the team from Helena and cheat for the team from Anaconda.

That is what they went way out of their way to tell me, at least.

The stands at the West gym, which is named after my grandpa’s brother, are up above the court. So, the parents had to go way out of their way to confront me about the game.

It started with a dad, who shook my hand and thanked me for being there to referee. Then, he proceeded to lecture me about how I have to be fair.

I wasn’t fair, he said, because my partner and I called more fouls on his daughter’s team than we did on the team from Anaconda.

Anaconda was playing a soft zone defense, while the Helena team employed an aggressive full-court man-to-man press the entire game. I tried to explain to the dad that such different approaches usually lead to different foul counts, but it was like talking to the wall.

Fouls are not created equal. Some teams foul more than others. One team scores more points, too.

Before I could finish explaining that, a mom jumped in to tell me that I was a cheater.

“We filed a complaint yesterday about the same thing,” she said. “We will be filing a complaint again today.”

For the record, I was not the referee who they felt cheated them the day before. I was busy refereeing the subvarsity girls’ basketball games between Butte Central and Hamilton at the Butte Civic Center.

So, I had company as an accused dishonest sports official.

Realizing there was just no talking to such people, I walked up to use the men’s room in the short amount of time I had between games. When I tried to leave the court, the third parent or grandparent jumped in.

This little woman could have been anywhere between 40 and 108. I did not look at her because she immediately made it known that she was not someone I wanted to make eye contact with.

“These parents pay good money for these teams to play, and they deserve fair referees,” she said.

She hurried up to walk beside me and repeated this sentiment all the way up the stairs and down the hallway to where I finally turned to go to the restroom.

“You need to be fair,” she said over and over. “You need to do better.”

Never did I feel threatened by these three. I was just annoyed by their accusations and their monetary sense of entitlement.

A couple weeks earlier at the same gym, though, is a different story. My safety and the safety of my partner Kristen were definitely in question. 

We were working the all-important sixth-grade boys’ consolation championship game on a tournament on a Sunday afternoon. It was so important that I did not even know the name of the tournament — if there even was one.

Judging by the parents in the crowd, this was game was a matter of life and death.

Fans screamed at us to call a travel, and then they screamed at us if we called a travel. They screamed at us to call a foul. Then they screamed at us for calling fouls.

They wanted us to call 3 seconds. Then they screamed at us for calling 3 seconds.

“That’s terrible!”

“Call ’em both ways!”

“There’s two teams out there!”

The coaches from both teams did not like us much either. 

In the first minutes of the game, we had one boy push another boy after a hand-check foul. Then the boy who was pushed put a finger in the other boy’s face and said, ‘Ha ha, you’re benched.’”

Then, the coaches were mad at the officials for calling technical fouls on the boys.

“You have to explain to them what they did,” one coach told me, as if they did not know.

Neither player came off the court because of the technicals, and the calls only enraged the parents.

Since we didn’t have the security we do at high school games, Kristen asked me, sincerely, if we were going to be able to get out of the gym during a late timeout.

“Just stay by me,” I said. “We’ll fight our way out of here if we have to.”

Of course, this happened right after we saw on the news that a 60-year-old man died following a fight between spectators at a middle school basketball game in Vermont.

We have seen countless videos of officials getting assaulted, too.

I started refereeing basketball games this season. I passed the test to become a member of the Montana Officials Association, and I have been refereeing subvarsity high school games.

It has been a lot of fun working the high school games. Almost all of the students and coaches are respectful, and I never even came close to calling a single technical foul in a prep game.

Sure, we hear fans yell from the stands, and some coaches work for calls the entire game. That never bothers me.

Not once did I feel like I was about to be attacked or confronted.

That’s because each high school event has school administrators on hand to make sure that things don’t get out of hand. After a game, the officials leave the court immediately.

At travel tournaments, we officiate the game, then wait around to officiate the next one. We are sitting ducks for the angry moms and dads.

The plus side to that, though, is so many times we have players come up to thank us for refereeing. By far the majority of the kids are fun. They make it all worth it, even if some of their parents yell at us.

These tournaments are a great place for officials, especially inexperienced officials, to work on their game. 

Of course, the No. 1 reason they are there is so that there can be a game in the first place. Their job is to make sure one team does not have an unfair advantage over another. They are not there to make sure the foul count — or the score — is equal.

They are not there to make sure that the parents feel they got their money’s worth.

They see a foul or violation, they call it. It really is that simple.

Sometimes they miss them. Sometimes the players miss shots, too.

When young and inexperienced officials are repeatedly badgered by fans, they quit. Then, the same fans complain that we don’t have enough good officials working games when their children reach high school.

In a recent edition of the ButteCast, Mike Thatcher offered his 90/10 theory. He said 90 percent of the people are good, but that 10 percent really make things difficult on the 90.

Being the glass-is-half-full type, I think it is closer to 95/5. When it comes to the players, it is more like 99.9-0.1.

If you ever confronted an official following a youth basketball game, you are part of the smaller number.

If so, you should listen to what the woman between 40 and 108 says and do better.

— Bill Foley, who never dreamed he’d be accused of cheating for Anaconda, can be reached at Follow him at Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.