February is African-American history month, but the news that greeted African-American high school basketball officials in Nebraska has many of them -- and some local community members and politicians -- up in arms.
According to the Omaha World-Herald, among 22 black referees who were eligible to take part in the 2011 boys and girls basketball tournaments, only two were selected. Both of those referees were chosen to officiate games in the boys tournament, while no black referees were chosen for the girls tournament.
When you consider the fact that roughly 75 referees were chosen to participate in the tournaments, the fact that only two black refs were chosen by the Nebraska School Activities Association is startling. To put the overall percentages in perspective, nine percent of the eligible black refs were chosen to work in the playoff games, while roughly 57 percent of non-black referees were selected to participate.
"The numbers don't lie," African-American referee Chanell Hickey, told the World-Herald. "I don't want to call it racism, but I just don't know what else to call it."
While the NSAA has yet to officially respond to the concerns raised by the black officials from the Omaha area, the organization's interim director said that the NSAA would hear their concerns once the current tournaments are completed, under the purview that the NSAA listens to all concerns related to its state tournaments.
In the meantime, some point to the subjective nature of determining which referees are best suited to work the state games as potential reasons why more black refs aren't featured in key state tournaments. Whether that rationale is valid or not is another question.
"I was an official for 34 years, and it was always hard to figure out how (the NSAA) selected officials for districts and state," Mike Peters, the supervisor of officials for the Metro Conference, told the World-Herald. "There's a lot of officials that don't get the state tournament that are good enough to work it, but that's where the question comes in of how they select it."
The NSAA's annual manual for officials does speak to the large gray area in determining which officials will be chosen to work games at the state tournament. The only three criteria used in selecting those referees are 1) "Observations from NSAA staff and hired consultants," 2) "Experience levels and geographic location," and 3) "Voting by coaches and athletic directors."
All three of those determining factors leave room for potential crutches for NSAA staff that might be put on the spot about the paucity of black officials at the state level.
For now, the association's race issue isn't even being acknowledged as a legitimate concern. All the while, African-American referees and coaches continue to vent their frustrations that more people like themselves aren't working at the most important games of the season.
"I get tired of going into games and not seeing minority officials," said Thomas Lee, head coach of Omaha Central's girls team, which was beaten in last week's state semifinals.
"I deal with it, and I teach my kids to deal with it. But it's a hard thing to do sometimes."The color of a referee's skin shouldn't matter, Lee said.
"But, unfortunately, it does."