If you had walked into the Recreation and Physical Activity Center on the campus of The Ohio State University on April 21, you would have experienced the sound of basketballs pounding against every available gym floor as the 2017 NIRSA National Basketball Championships tournament reached full swing. This tournament features top competitors from across the nation; not just the players or the premier collegiate recreation professionals though, but also a crop of top up-and-coming student officials.

These young officials are dedicated to enhancing their skills and through NIRSA’s Student Officials Development Program, they benefit from the mentorship and structured guidance of some of the very best. A subtle shift in perspective reveals that it’s not just players who are rushing to beat their man down the court; refs are out there hustling just as hard to properly position for whatever might happen next.

I had the opportunity to talk with four of this year’s student officials about their experiences officiating and taking part in NIRSA’s Student Officials Development Program. See how they found their way into officiating, why they officiate, and how developing as an official has translated to off-the-court skills.

Finding the right role in the game and gaining perspective

As Andre Faison, a junior studying general business management at Kansas State University, stood on the sidelines preparing for his turn to officiate a game, he recounts how he first got into officiating: “I grew up with basketball. But, eventually, I realized I was not cut out to be a player. I was just not confrontational enough while playing. Yet I found that I could stay involved and have an important position in the game by becoming an official.”

High-quality officials are essential to the success of any league for any sport, and campus recreation provides thousands of students a pathway into officiating.

Andre believes that being selected to take part in NIRSA’s Student Officials Development Program has had many benefits for him on and off the court. “One of the most important lessons I have learned is to become adaptable in all situations and to go with the flow,” he explains. “I have come to realize that with every call there will be many people who are mad at you. I have learned to not take things like that personally.” That perspective is not only useful on the court; it’s a quality that is evident in successful business management as well.

Projecting confidence and conflict management

Officials at the 2017 NIRSA National Basketball Championships advance to later rounds in the tournament based on their performances in the early rounds. As they work their way up the ranks, all the tools in their skill set—temperament, judgment, the ability to handle mayhem, and more—are thoroughly tested.

Collin Anderson, a senior studying geological engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agrees that the NIRSA Student Officials Development Program helped him strengthen skills that he will use throughout life: “Through the process of learning the skills and fundamentals of my role as official, I have become aware of how I carry myself in a way that projects confidence and presence. I am much more aware of my body language.” He adds, “My officiating experience helps me with conflict management and constant change.”

Exercising focus and making friends

Nathan Ferdinand, a fifth-year senior studying history at The Ohio State University, explains that being a part of the program gave him an opportunity to participate in an activity outside of class that provides a positive outlet and offers a social component. “Officiating is an activity that teaches me to focus and to be completely present. Having this experience has made me a better student and given me confidence in other areas of my life.”

“Having this experience has made me a better student and given me confidence in other areas of my life.”

One of the most enjoyable parts of the officiating program is the networking that takes place at events like the basketball championship. All the student officials I spoke with agreed that meeting others with shared interests from all over the country is a highlight of the event. Along with the opportunity to learn from each other and from more experienced officials and trainers, lifelong friendships are made here.

Working with emerging officials keeps experienced officials sharp

Sports officials rely on mentors and ongoing trainings, but referees, umpires, and officials don’t have coaches the way that players do. The thoughtful feedback that each student official receives on their performances at this tournament is one of the most rewarding parts of the program.

Ross Winter, Assistant Director of Intramural Sports and Outdoor Fields Maintenance at Michigan State University, says that as an official training director he learns something new every time he attends a NIRSA tournament. “Attending this event,” he explains, “keeps me sharp in my job as a trainer of officials at MSU. We learn and focus on best practices, which I take back to my professional role in developing the next generation of sports officials.” Ross also stressed that the connections made at a NIRSA event are invaluable because “staying connected in your profession opens doors and provides opportunities to expand your knowledge.”

When asked about their favorite part of the program, student officials unanimously agreed that the caliber of guest speakers far exceeded their expectations. In his presentation, JD Collins, NCAA’s national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, suggested that participants think about how they carry themselves both on and off the court. He stressed the importance of being aware and of exuding presence and confidence in all things—a message that extends beyond sports officiating.

NIRSA is a leader in providing opportunities for developing student sports officials

The NIRSA Championship Series tournaments have provided opportunities for hundreds of young aspiring and emerging sports officials over the past 20 years, continually raising the bar for college and officials training.

NIRSA’s program has a long history of serving as a high-quality source of well-trained officials. This training provides a grassroots solution to the shortage of young officials from the community and local levels, all the way up to the elite levels of college and professional competition.

Through in-game training experiences, students learn to make real-time calls while shadowing experts. Students learn to officiate across multiple sports as well as develop expert command of the rules and regulations in a specific sport.

“I have become aware of how I carry myself in a way that projects confidence and presence.”

Through the tutelage of NIRSA volunteers, students build skills like conflict resolution, communications, problem-solving, and decision-making. Young officials who participate in NIRSA’s training become lifelong sports fans who give back to their communities on and off the field.

NIRSA’s training provides young officials with the experience they need to contribute meaningfully in their communities.

Support these experiences by contributing to the NIRSA Foundation

With your help, NIRSA will continue to provide training to another generation of students who officiate in community, college, and even professional settings. Please help the next generation of sports officials earn their stripes by making a tax-deductible gift to NIRSA’s Student Officials Development program today.

For those who have already earned their stripes, Darci Doll, Associate Director of Intramural Sports at The University of Texas at Austin and a NIRSA member, challenges all current officials to join her in donating the equivalent amount of one game’s check from your highest level of officiating to NIRSA’s Student Officials Development Campaign.

Donate to the Student Officials Development Campaign

Your donation shows your appreciation for the value and impact of officials’ training to both athletes and communities. NIRSA is committed to making the right call and maintaining the quality and value of its student officials’ development.

  • For more information, please contact NIRSA Director of Philanthropy Kim Holmes.
  • If you’re interested in highlighting a sports officials’ story from your campus or an alumni official’s achievements from your campus, pitch us your ideas.
Program Coordinator at

Rachel Whisler is currently a Program Coordinator at The Ohio State University; she can be reached at whisler.32@osu.edu.