row2k Features
Firm But Not Cruel - More 'Views from the Referee's Launch'
May 31, 2024
Tom Mannle

The nature of officiating any sport may strike some as inherently adversarial... but that's the wrong impression. True, when I started there were more than a few of my colleagues who felt that with a blazer, clipboard, stopwatch, and megaphone in their hands they were now large and in charge, it was them against the rowers, and by Jim they were not going to let them get away with anything-and oh by the way, Hey! Pay attention! What is it you don't understand! I'm talking to you!

Except...these messages were not delivered in a calm and deliberate fashion, more like: I'M TALKING TO YOU!! This philosophical outlook doesn't lend itself to effective control on the water, rather it leads to flustered, intimidated athletes for whom any correct idea of what they're supposed to do has flown right out of their heads after an encounter with this type of official; especially true for high school athletes and particularly novice and Freshman crews.

When I joined Kathleen (my Referee sister) and Ryz (my Referee brother) as a Referee, we all noticed-Kathleen was an educator for the hearing impaired-that more than a few of our colleagues in the DC Metro area had this unfortunate officiating style, similar to shouting at the hard of hearing to make yourself better understood. We were all parents of scholastic rowers, we didn't want them shouted at, and we didn't want to embrace that style either.

In our conversations with some of these colleagues, we started advocating for a new, calmer approach to the craft, and we also took the time to those Referees who came into the corps after us that it was always, always about the athletes and that our egos should not be involved. We didn't really have a way to convey this approach simply, until Kathleen followed a junior girls' 4+ race on the Potomac.

The only crew I remember from Kathleen's account is the crew from the National Cathedral School (NCS). From the outset Kathleen had to instruct NCS to correct their course several times, because they were encroaching on adjacent crews' water. Kathleen did so by raising her white flag over her head vertically, calling out "NCS! NCS!" several times during the race. The NCS crew did not respond to any of her instructions.

After all crews crossed the Finish line, Kathleen went to talk to the NCS crew; the coxswain of course was inexperienced, didn't understand the interaction with Referees, reported she didn't hear Kathleen's instructions, and professed her apologies. Kathleen restored fairness with respect to the other crews that NCS had affected and gave the NCS coxswain a talking-to about her responsibilities--which included talking to the stroke who was in the best position to see the Referee's flag instructions and communicate to the coxswain accordingly.

Kathleen's driver was a crew mom, not clear which school her rower competed for; having observed Kathleen's frustration during the race, and her interaction with the NCS crew post-race, she told Kathleen, "That was great! You were firm, but not cruel!"

Firm But Not Cruel became the shorthand we needed to convey the intent to our colleagues; we've used it ever since. The motto made its way to a button for the blazer (translated into Latin, of course; although our late colleague Father Mike Siconolfi, S.J., quibbled with my translation...(hey Mike! I took four years of high school Latin from the teacher who taught my mother! I got it!). The button has become a signal to others about the philosophical approach to officiating we try to follow. I've given out a few of them.

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