It's All Black and White
|Bobby "Butch" Burney | News-Telegram Sports Editor|
June 19, 2004 -- The visiting fan sitting at midcourt of the North Hopkins' gym had gotten more than his money's worth in dishing out verbal invectives for going on three games when Tony Flippin finally had enough.
The veteran official walked over to the fan, but instead of tossing him out of the game, Flippin let the fan choose his fate.
"I turned to him," Flippin related, "and said, 'I've listened to you for two ballgames and you're fixing to make a decision. Either you can change your tone and watch the ballgames, or you can leave. I'm not going to make the decision, you are.' "
The fan settled down and stayed for the remainder of the game, and Flippin was able to avoid a larger confrontation.
Knowing how to deal with criticism is a benefit of being an official for almost a decade and half.
Getting chewed out is one of the disadvantages. But Flippin - like all good officials - knows that handling criticism is part of the job description.
"You have to have thick skin. You don't make much money. People who do it for the money, shouldn't be in it," he said. "You need to do it for the love of the game and exercise and the camaraderie with others.
"The biggest drawback is the criticism, and you have to be able to handle it and know how to handle it."
Flippin has handled it as a football official for 14 years. He started calling basketball a few years ago when he had some free time on his hands.
He's one of a number of professionals who work behind the scenes at sporting events to make them possible. Even so, he knows that referees and umpires are not the center of the game.
"I get out there and I love being around the kids. When I get on the field, nothing else in the world matters. It's one of those getaways. I have fun, I enjoy being around my crew.
"But, we know that people don't come to games to see us officiate. They come to watch the teams play the games. We're there to see that everyone gets a fair shake."
Flippin started off umpiring youth league baseball games right out of high school as a summer job. He did that until 1980, but he soured on it when a Paris All-Star coach accused him of wanting a particular team to win because Flippin was talking to the players.
"At the end of the game, the coach of a team that wasn't on the field but who was going to play the winner of that game, told the director he didn't want me umpiring their game," Flippin related. "It wasn't because I had missed any calls, but because he thought I cared who won the game, and that really bothered me."
He stayed out of it until 1991 when Mark Rorie finally persuaded him to referee seventh-grade intramural football games at Forrest Gregg Field. He then talked him into joining the North East Texas chapter of officials based in Greenville, and he has been doing it ever since.
"That was the second week in September. I had no training, and that next day, I called a subvarsity game in Alba because there were so few officials that they were trying to fill games. About three weeks later, I had a varsity game that was Fannindel at Wolfe City," he remembered.
"I could hardly breathe that first Friday game because I was afraid I would mess up. I've been blessed to do varsity games every week for the last 14 years. I've been very blessed and fortunate to be on good crews. And I love it."
Like all football officials, Flippin started on the sidelines - the rookies get the visitors' sideline with the chain crew - but he quickly became a back judge and did that for 10 years before moving into the referee's position last year. The referee is the crew chief.
"I don't mind being the referee, because I don't mind being the one to explain things. I feel I have a gift of communication, and so it takes a lot to make me mad, and I think that's a good trait for a referee to have," he said. "You know when a coach calls you over there, he's not inviting you to supper. There are officials that will bow up at you, it's just human nature.
"I feel like I have the presence to go over there and remain calm and explain things. It's not like I don't get mad, and when I've had enough, I'll let them know it. For the most part, you've got to be a good communicator to be a good official."
In dealing with coaches, Flippin keeps in mind one important thing - their jobs may be on the line.
"For us, it's a hobby. For them, it's an occupation. You don't want to pop off and cause a scene. There are tempers and personalities that can escalate in front of everybody, and if something happens, you can cause a man his career."
He also tries to keep the fan in mind. Not that he changes the way he calls a game because of fans, but Flippin uses his own viewpoint as a fan to officiate the game seamlessly.
"We try to call things that affect the play - point of attack is what we stress. If you have a sweep right and the left tackle grabs some jersey, you tell him, 'No. 74, watch your hands,' but since it didn't affect the play, you don't call it back," he explained. "The rule book says you never do any preventive officiating, but that's bad in my opinion. I call like you watch. I call offsides, holding, clipping, facemask. I think more people and more coaches want to see the game called the way a fan sees it. I'm out there to give the kids a fair shake. I could care less who wins or loses."
That is the trademark of a good official.
"I think coaches realize when I walk out of the field or the court, they're not going to get hammered. They're going to get a fair shake. That doesn't mean I'm going to call every call just right, but they know I'm going to try."
Some people may say officiating is a thankless job, but Flippin disagrees. There are the times when fans and coaches will say, "Good game, ref," but it goes beyond that.
"I love the sport," he explained. "I was a decent athlete growing up, but I wasn't star. I get playing time now, and I enjoy that, and I feel like I'm accomplished at what I do. It's not just me, it's people I'm surrounded by.
"I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it."