Off the Page with Extol takes a timeout to talk to our March Sports cover referee, Eric Ballenger. During the NCAA Basketball tournament, the refs took a beating. How does our favorite ref see the call?
Basketball fans revere their own players and may respect opponents. But nobody loves the referees. Here’s a look from the ref’s side of the ball.
By Steve Kaufman | Photos by Tony Bennett and Tab Brockman on behalf of Murray State Athletics
Most days, Eric Ballenger wears a traditional shirt and tie to the office, where he’s senior vice president of investments for a wealth management firm in Southern Indiana.
He’s a happy 58-year-old family man with three daughters and five grandchildren.
Perhaps the most confrontational thing someone might say to him is to turn off his cell phone in the Starbucks line.
But then there are the many winter nights when Ballenger trades in his business suit for a striped shirt. He calls it his “secret second life.” Or it would be secret except for the thousands of people watching him – and the whistle around his neck.
In those circumstances, the things people yell at him are . . . let’s just say they’re not love calls. More like suggestions on where he can go after the game – and what he can do when he gets there.
THE MEN IN THE STRIPES
Ballenger is part of the community of men and, increasingly, women who referee college basketball games. You won’t find him on the court at the Yum! Center or Rupp Arena. But, after 35 years, he has moved up to Division I games in the Ohio Valley Conference and Summit League.
He has seen some excellent teams and some excellent players. The Murray State Flyers and Isaiah Canaan got to the NCAA’s round of 32 in both 2010 and 2012. From 2007 to 2011, Morehead State featured Kenneth Faried, one of the most dynamic college basketball players in the country. Last November, Indiana University-Purdue University’s Fort Wayne Mastodons beat Indiana.
Ballenger drives the three or four hours to games from his home in Jeffersonville, Ind. – sometimes in the company of one of the other refs that night – and then back home right after the game.
Often, his feet hurt. Or maybe he tweaked his knee during the game. He dreads the night that the post-game aches and pains might be more serious than just fatigue or exertion.
“It’s the old story in sports: the legs go first,” Ballenger acknowledged, ruefully. “In fact, I’ve cut back in the last year. The incidents of knee problems on older refs are pretty high.”
The routine can get wearing. “You do a game, jump in your car and drive four hours home. That’s not a great way to take care of your legs.”
The money’s fine, but it’s not the six-figure annual income that a guy doing Big Ten and ACC games could make. It’s definitely no more than supplemental income for him.
So the pay’s just okay, the wear and tear on his body can be brutal, and people yell unseemly personal things in his direction.
Were you wondering why he does it?
Is “love of the game” too corny an answer?
Ballenger does love being a part of the game he has played since he was on two state-ranked teams at Jeffersonville High School in the mid-1970s, and two NAIA national tournament teams at Hanover College.
He also loves the physical exertion.
“It’s a great release for me, to run up and down the floor, sweat, stay close to the game, stay close to young kids,” Ballenger said. “That’s what still makes it fun for me.” It’s also a way of staying in shape. “Some guys my age play golf or tennis, or run marathons or ride their bikes,” he said.
GOING TO WORK WITH DAD
As with a lot of boys, young Eric was influenced by going to work with his father. Ed Ballenger was a band teacher at Jeffersonville High School (and, later, the baseball coach at New Washington High School).
But Ed also frequently officiated at high school basketball and baseball games. “I think he loved doing it, but also that $15 or $20 helped put food on the table,” Eric recalled. “I’d go along, sit at the scorer’s bench and ride back with him. I saw it up close and personal through his eyes.”
Of course, part of what he saw was the invective heaped on his father – particularly at basketball games, where a deep level of passion runs through the Hoosier culture.
“He was yelled at all the time,” Eric recalled, “but I was under strict instructions not to say a word. I think it developed my ability to block out all that emotion coming out of the stands and not let it affect me in making my calls.
“You learn a lot about conflict resolution.”
But what Ballenger also saw was his dad doing something he enjoyed and the camaraderie he experienced with his fellow refs. “It was a neat relationship,” he said.
THE BASKETBALL BUG BITES
After graduating from college and joining the job world, Ballenger got the bug to get involved in basketball again.
“I worked some junior high school games, then high school, then felt I should try my hand at the next level,” he recalled. “Jim Morris, the coach at (Indiana University Southeast), helped me get my foot in the door. He hired me for some of his games. He also put in a good word for me with some of the conference supervisors, and I began working my way into the Division III level.”
It was the mid-1980s, and things were a little different.
“Back then, you’d take the test and get your license, and you were thrown to the wolves,” Ballenger said. “But there were plenty of older, more-experienced refs willing to take a young guy in and show him the ropes –where you stand, what you look for.”
And so he progressed from one college game at one school to conference affiliations with the likes of Franklin College, Anderson and Transylvania. Then he went to summer camps for refs, got observed by league supervisors and was picked up for Division II games, which included Bellarmine, IUS, Indianapolis University.
“But in the officiating world, everyone’s goal is Division I,” he admitted.
FASTER, QUICKER, HIGHER
He made the goal about seven years ago, becoming associated with the mid-major Ohio Valley Conference. And, he said, he began to see a different level of athlete – the likes of Faried and Canaan – that epitomizes the changing world of college basketball.
“The speed and athleticism of these players now is unbelievable,” he said. “And that has changed the style of ball. Everyone wants to play up-tempo, to constantly push it.”
It’s a game the fans love – and the TV producers especially love – but it’s demanding on the refs.
“The flow of the game is so fast, and the ref is constantly running, trying to see everything,” Ballenger said. “It takes a fair amount of conditioning, judgment and reaction. The NCAA is always preaching at us to get the right angles, but sometimes the play’s in front of you, you’re running, trying to catch up. You see what you see.”
LET’S GO TO THE MONITORS
It’s not only the speed of the game that has changed for referees, or the revised interpretations of certain rules and fouls. Increasingly, refs feel captive to modern video technology – both the instant replays that often slow the game down and the videos that are downloaded and streamed around the world.
“The advent of the replay has made officials work harder to get it right the first time on the floor,” Ballenger acknowledged. “And sure, there’s a certain level of pressure knowing every call is scrutinized by several camera angles and the commentary of the TV announcers.
“Twenty-five years ago, it was your word against everyone else’s. Now, it’s your word against the video.”
But, he said, that has not impacted the integrity of the officiating community in the least.
“In any given basketball game, nearly every possession contains a series of decisions that could influence the outcome of the play and, in essence, the game,” Ballenger said. “And that means whether the ref blows his whistle or doesn’t blow his whistle.”
And there’s no let-up.
“In baseball, you could stand out there on the basepath for two hours and never make a close call,” he said. “In basketball, you’ll have three or four hard decisions per possession. Do I call an illegal pick, do I call a moving screen, do I call a push-off?”
Always remember, he said, “you see a call in replay, and you may think the official got it right, or maybe he got it wrong. But in real time, the referee has to make decisions at game-speed and without six-angle replays.”
In fact, it’s remarkable how many times the replay will validate the ref’s original call.
THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD
However, that doesn’t satisfy the legion of basketball fans who take to social media, to feast not on Quentin Snider or De’Aaron Fox, but on Ted Valentine, Doug Shows and the rest of the officiating fraternity. Google some version of “college basketball refs” and your results will include:
“Bumbling college basketball refs.”
“SEC basketball is being strangled by poor officiating.”
“Refs are hurting the game.”
And much of this is accompanied by video.
“Sure, we’re reviewed,” said Ballenger.
“Every NCAA league, down to Division III, has a supervisor of officials. And every game is, in some kind of form, streamed, televised or taped for review. So the ability of coaches and observers to see a play in a game is 100 percent.”
What Ballenger will tell you, though, is that any referee who doesn’t consistently perform will not get hired much. “The guys you see on TV and think they’re no good? The conferences’ supervisors of officials think they’re good, or they wouldn’t be working the games. All the conferences want the top guys available.”
He said there has been a concerted effort over the last 10 years to bring a level of consistency to what is called, and even when it’s called. “And it’s called the same in the Big Ten as the SEC as the ACC.”
What is not called, he said, is what fans term “make-up calls” – to atone for a previous blown call.
“They just don’t happen. If we miss a call – and it happens, occasionally – we move on. If we missed a call and then tried to make it up, we’ve made two mistakes.”
And then there are the constantly changing rules: on hand-checking, say, or the charge-versus-the-block under the basket – the so-called “arc rule.”
“The points of emphasis on most rule changes are coming in the hope that college basketball becomes more watchable, not less watchable,” Ballenger said. “Nobody wants to watch a 52-49 game, nor do you want to watch an endless number of free throws.”
Besides, he said, the ref himself has no vested interest in calling things one way or another. “Whatever the rules, you have to call fouls. You can take it to the bank, the refs don’t care what the NCAA feels about the rules; just tell us how to call it and we’ll call it.”
In fact, said Ballenger, what every referee craves is less controversy – not more.
WHEN THINGS GO RIGHT – OR NOT
“Utopia for any official is the game when every play is clear, every call is easy and you get them all right. You don’t have coaches chirping at you or the kids acting up. You made the right calls, didn’t decide the game or play a big part. No controversy.”
And when that doesn’t happen?
“When those bad nights happen, you rely on your camaraderie, riding together to and from the games,” Ballenger said. “Fans don’t know this, but the phone lines light up at night with refs calling each other, talking about their games.
“It’s the fellowship of being able to tell somebody else about a tough call or play or coach, and they understand. They’ve had that same play, that same coach. There’s a tight knit group of guys out there experiencing the same things.”
But, he said, close game or blowout, team or coach, “none of us cares who wins the game. We just want to get the game done as cleanly as possible and move on to the next one. The last thing we need is controversy.
“I’d rather,” he said, “have a game in which nobody knows I’m there.”