By Timothy W. Joseph on June 16, 2023
Louisville, KY – Anyone who has ever watched a sports event has no doubt heard boos or cheers directed at the referee for a decision made. Maybe you are one of those people that has even shouted something along the lines of, “Come on Ref! Are you blind?” from the stands at your own child’s match.
But have you considered what it takes to become a referee? Frank Lewis of Ref Junkies Academy filled us in. Ref Junkies Academy is a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded by Frank Lewis, Beau Zach Smith, Tony Ramsey and Eric Dixon. It has been operating in the Louisville, KY area since 2022.
While a license is required to officiate any sports event at the high school level and above, there isn’t really any requirement for anything below that. If you were the one yelling at the referee in your son’s middle school basketball game, you might have been yelling at someone that just bought a whistle and striped shirt with no experience or clue how to officiate a match to begin with. And that is precisely the type of situation that Ref Junkies Academy is focused on remedying.
According to Frank, “We have an officiating crisis. There is a shortage in all sports. Current officials are aging out. Brand new people have to start at Youth Leagues before working their way up. Retention rates are low. The sports suffer and that is going to hurt the youth the most.”
It stands to reason that if there is currently a struggle to find licensed experienced referees for high school and college games, the problem is exacerbated when it comes to the more numerous Church Youth Leagues, middle school tournaments and other similar events.
While having a license to officiate is a good start, that is just the minimum for becoming a referee for high school games. Frank and his co-founders started Ref Junkies Academy to provide standardization for how basketball games are refereed in the Louisville, KY area and eventually beyond that. Their current training is geared towards those seeking to become basketball referees without any prior experience as well as more advanced training for existing refs seeking to move up in the ranks.
Oh, and did I mention that these courses are absolutely FREE?!
In this way, Ref Junkies Academy is increasing the number of qualified referees in their community. This allows them to become a resource for organizations seeking to find qualified referees to officiate their games. And not just qualified, but also much less likely to be biased towards one team or the other. I know Jimmy’s dad might know the rules of basketball and try to be as fair of a referee as possible, but it is much harder to claim he isn’t making calls in favor of the team his son is playing for compared to a trained referee that doesn’t even know Jimmy or anyone on either team for that matter.
Of course, there is no way to 100% guarantee that an official won’t demonstrate any bias or will always make the right call every time, but standardized training goes a long way in reducing such things. Frank described his own experience with refereeing like this, “As a kid, I was a University of Kentucky fanatic. However, once I became an official, everything changed. When I am watching sports now, I focus on the officials and how they are calling the game, not one team or the other. A fanatic tends to praise the calls of the ref only if it favors their team and condemn calls that favor the other team. As an official, my team has never lost a game. My record is 0-0.”
He continued, “When I first started, I always heard ‘Give back, serve the game’. We are here to give our best possible for the ten players on the court. That’s the philosophy that we teach. Anyone anywhere should be able to work the system together to provide the fairest competition possible.” In this sense, they certainly are living up to their motto “Training officials today for tomorrow’s competitions.”
Since all four founders are from the Louisville area, they are focusing their current efforts in their hometown. Frank described Louisville like this, “It’s a good city. If you can’t find something to do here that you enjoy, then you aren’t looking hard enough. Louisville Slugger originated here. Muhammad Ali originated here. And it’s not all sports related as Louisville hosts some of the largest music festivals in the country. It’s a good family town.”
With that in mind, Ref Junkies Academy currently offers training specifically for basketball focused on the Louisville area. However, they do offer support for those wishing to officiate other sports and other locations. Their website offers resources to find and connect with local associations all over the US. Additionally, they have strong working relationships with national charity organizations relating to sports such as the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) and Reviving Urban Neighborhoods (R.U.N.).
Franks has had the privilege of officiating several NWBA games. He told me, “Being a wheelchair official has been eye-opening. You never know what someone else is going through. You see how people can be resilient no matter what they are going through.”
That’s just his experience from that one division, but overall being a referee has provided him the opportunity to stay active in the sport long after leaving it. Not only that, but officiating helps improve both verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Additionally, Frank said, “Officiating in general made me a much calmer person. It taught me stoicism. Coaches, players and fans ride the roller coaster of emotion during the game, but as a referee, you learn to remain stable throughout the game.”
All four founders are licensed basketball referees with years of experience. Most are former players themselves. For those of you familiar with the University of Louisville’s Cardinals team, you might have recognized the name Beau Zach Smith from his time playing for them.
Nelson Mandela said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.”
So, if you are interested in becoming or improving your rank as a referee, are looking for more qualified officials for your events, or if this article piqued your interest and you want to help support this cause by buying merchandise or sponsoring events, then go to www.refjunkies.com. Ref Junkies is giving back to their communities. Help them in their efforts by joining their cause in whatever way you can.
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