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Q&A: Referee says be fair — but don’t expect much love

VIDEO: Behind the scenes with Tacoma football officiating crew

Tacoma lawyer Keith MacFie nourishes a love affair with the gridiron by working as a referee for the past 23 years. He and his crew worked a game between Fife and Washington high schools Friday, Oct. 2, 2015.
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Tacoma lawyer Keith MacFie nourishes a love affair with the gridiron by working as a referee for the past 23 years. He and his crew worked a game between Fife and Washington high schools Friday, Oct. 2, 2015.

Some might call Keith MacFie a glutton for punishment.

A criminal defense attorney by day, the 60-year-old MacFie, who lives in the Browns Point area, spends many nights and weekends officiating South Sound football and lacrosse games, mainly at the high school level.

“I get it in my day job, and I get it in my afternoon and evening job,” said MacFie, president-elect of the Western Washington Football Officials Association, the second-largest such group in the state.

Still, the love of games he played in his youth has drawn him back to the fields the past 24 years to instill order, ensure fairness and, in his words, “to give something back.”

With football season in full swing, MacFie talked with The News Tribune about officiating.

Q: Why did you decide to become a sports official?

A: I played football and I played lacrosse in college. I love both games, and I decided the best way for me to be able to keep in the game was to become an official.

Q: What kind of training do you have to undergo to become an official?

A: You start out as an apprentice, and you do the basic training.

For football, through the Western Washington Football Officials Association, we run a program that begins in late July. It’s rules knowledge. It’s mechanics knowledge; in other words, how to position yourself during the game. You really never stop learning how to do things.

Q: How big is the rule book?

A: The high school football rule book is maybe 80 to 90 pages. You pretty much have to know it, word by word.

Penalty enforcement is always a difficult thing, no matter what the sport is. It’s the hardest thing to learn, I think, for football officials. You have to know it real well.

Q: So hopefully you guys and gals know what you’re doing, despite what we think on the sidelines?

A: (laughs) We’re constantly struggling with that perception.

Q: What are the challenges of being a high school sports official?

A: From a physical standpoint, you’ve got to keep yourself in shape. From a mental standpoint, you’ve got to understand that you’re not necessarily going to be loved by both sides during a game.

Other challenges are, quite frankly, you’ve got to deal with unhappy parents, unhappy players, unhappy coaches and fans.

Q: Does officiating attract a certain kind of person?

A: I don’t think so. You find them from all walks of life. You find professionals, blue-collar workers, family men, retirees. It’s mostly people who want to give back to the game.

Q: What’s one of your enduring memories of officiating?

A: Camaraderie. You make a lot of good friends who are fellow officials. Probably not apropos, but misery loves company. I’ll do a game tomorrow night, and I’ll meet up with some of my friends, and they’ll have their games, and we’ll sit around and have a drink, and we’ll talk about what happened.

Q: Sports officials have been in the news recently, including an incident in Texas where two prep football players blindsided an official. Was that incident an outlier?

A: Not really. I’ll be honest about it, and you may not like to hear this, but I think it’s become more of an item in the news only because the news cycle has changed. It’s 24-7, 365.

The truth of the matter is, there have always been incidents like these that have happened, even way back when I was playing in high school. But now, the news comes out.

Q: Have you had anything like that happen to you?

A: I have never seen it happen in any of my games in 24 years. Sure, you get fans who are mad, and they shout at you and maybe they continue into the parking lot complaining.

But have I ever been accosted by a player, a fan or a coach? Never. A lot of people just go, “Thank you for being here so our kids can play the game.”

Q: How has the recent emphasis on concussions and head injuries changed your job as an official?

A: It’s a huge thing. It started in lacrosse. There was a heightened awareness and specialized rules and penalty enforcement for head-to-head contact.

Now, there had always been those rules, but as sports officials we understood there was going to be some head-to-head contact and if it was deliberate or excessive or violent, we would penalize that.

Pretty much we do the same now, but they’ve added a few more components.

Now, at all levels of the game, if we see a player and we think the player may have had his brain pan rattled or may be concussed, we have to take them out of the game. We take them over and hand them over to the coach, and, as of this year, to the approved medical provider.

Q: What other changes have you seen in football since you broke in as an official?

A: The players are bigger. They’re faster. The coaching is exceptional. The sophistication of the game has increased. When I was playing college football we didn’t have the sort of offense and coaching that’s going on now.

Q: What’s the toughest call to make on the football field?

A: Head-to-head contact. There’s going to be incidental contact, but now there’s such an emphasis on the safety of the players. This game could be destroyed by the problem we have with concussions and the emphasis on it now.

That’s the toughest one to call, because you’ve got to be able to separate the incidental contact from excessively violent, rough, intentional contact. That means we have to, more or less, put ourselves in the place of the player we may be penalizing to make that determination.

Q: What else should people know about officiating?

A: We need people to step up and be referees.

When I started, 20 some-odd years ago, there were about 150 to 155 officials in our association, and they were all very, very good officials. With the years, there’s been a steady attrition so that we’re now down to about 120.

Part of the reason for that, and I firmly believe this, is because of the fan reactions. Officials get tired of getting beaten about the head and shoulders by unruly fans and people who don’t know what they’re talking about, and so they leave.

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644

adam.lynn@thenewstribune.com

@TNTAdam

For more information about becoming a high school football official, go to wwfoa.com.

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