The Official View: Title IX – Door Opens for Female Officials

By Brent Rice
MHSAA Assistant Director

October 29, 2021

In the 50 years since Congress passed Title IX legislation in order to create equal educational opportunities, huge strides have been made for female students to participate in athletics.

But the advancement of opportunities wasn’t just for the athletes. It also opened a door which ushered in a generation of female sports officials.

Betty Near is one of those officials whose long and distinguished career as a high school and collegiate volleyball official is a direct result of the opportunities provided through Title IX. Unlike many today who entered officiating after having played the sport, Betty didn’t have those opportunities before first climbing the ladder (literally) in 1971. She was encouraged to take up the sport by Macia Tiesenga (a nationally-ranked collegiate official) who told Betty – who had been involved in athletics recreationally  that athletes make the best officials because of their understanding of competition.

“I’m frequently asked whether I got into officiating because I played volleyball. I tell them I didn’t play because girls volleyball didn’t exist when I was in school," Near said. "I try to share the story of Title IX every chance I get, to show them that they now have opportunities to both play and officiate because of those that came before them.”

Near has spent more than 45 years as a registered MHSAA official and is still going strong. That run has included six appearances as a Finals official. She recalls how at one of those Finals, an injury to her knee created a change in mechanics for the entire state.

“When I first began officiating in the 70s, the MHSAA had the umpires (R2s today) kneel underneath the net to look at blockers," she said. "This was quite dangerous and pretty ineffective.

"Officiating at the collegiate level, I had been trained to stand at the pole and look down the net. With this background, and seeing as my knee was still hurting from an earlier injury, I decided to use this mechanic.”

Betty NearSue Martin, the MHSAA director for volleyball at the time, approached Betty following her match. Near was certain that she was going to receive an earful. Instead, Martin asked the justification for using the mechanic, and they discussed the pros and cons of each. It was ultimately decided moving forward the umpire would take a position standing at the pole.

Mechanics changes aren’t the only effect Near has had on the sport. She was instrumental in the start of the West Michigan Volleyball Officials Association in 1984 and continues to help lead and grow that organization (now with more than 125 members). This has allowed her to work with the community, raising nearly $125,000 for scholarships for graduating high school seniors. And one of her biggest contributions remains her role in recruiting and mentoring new officials – especially helping to develop the next generation of female officials.

“Mentoring is a gratifying thing,” said Near, “especially when I receive emails or calls thanking me for helping them understand specific rules or situations and improving their skill sets. Watching someone I have mentored over 20 years work her way up to officiate multiple state tournaments (pleases me).”

Now officiating primarily at the college level, Betty still reserves Thursdays during the season to officiate MHSAA contests. She does this for the purpose of staying connected to high school students and officials and to build on the growth of female registered officials, though she also recognizes that challenges remain for female officials advancing through the system.

One of the natural barriers that apply to women more often than men is that women who begin families sometimes find difficulties continuing to officiate with their other responsibilities. While home lives can be difficult to navigate (for both women and men), officiating school sports provides a flexible alternative to stay active, remain involved in athletics, give back to the community, develop camaraderie and earn some extra cash.

Another hurdle that Near identifies for female officials, unfortunately, is a continuation of the “good ol' boy network.” She is reminded of a not-so-distant-past example when she and another female official had been selected to officiate the Regional round of the MHSAA Tournament; and even though both were well-established collegiate officials the host athletic director insisted that less-experienced male officials work as the R1 and R2 and the women work as line judges because the men would have better control of the tough matchup.

Of course, that kind of mindset isn’t based in fact, and many of the MHSAA’s best officials in all sports are women. Especially in girls sports, it is important that the student athletes see officials who represent them; but the MHSAA seeks female officials in all sports, including those dominated by male participants. This year will once again include a female officiating in the MHSAA Football Finals. Female officials also have worked Finals in baseball, boys basketball, ice hockey and wrestling.

The door that was opened for women and girls with the passing of Title IX a half-century ago only provides the opportunity. Capitalizing still requires stepping through the door to take full advantage of the opportunities provided. Near wants to encourage anyone to join the avocation of officiating, but especially young women.

“My hook is that the officiating is fun, and it is an activity that can be an avocation that can pay (in many ways) throughout their lifetimes," she said. 

It’s Official!

Postseason Assignments: Officials assignments for fall sports tournaments have been released. Congratulations to all selected to officiate this year.

Speaking of tournament assignments, a change will be made this year that allows basketball officials to submit their availability to work together as a crew. Crews can be set for the boys and girls tournaments separately. The hope is that this will encourage more officials to seek postseason consideration, knowing they can choose with whom they will officiate. Eligible individuals not included with a crew will be assigned a crew by MHSAA staff.

For all winter sports officials, make sure to complete all requirements for postseason consideration. Please remember that officials in basketball, competitive cheer, gymnastics, ice hockey and wrestling must opt-in to the tournament by indicating their tournament availability dates HERE. All additional requirements such as completion of tournament exams and submission of regular-season schedule also remain in place.

Officials Review Committee: The Officials Review Committee, consisting of school administrators, officials and assigners from around the state, convened in early October to discuss issues and concerns involving officiating. A number of proposals were made to the MHSAA Representative Council. You can find these and other discussion items by reviewing the minutes HERE.

Know Your Rules

SOCCER A player (#7) is injured and must leave the field. His team elects to play short-handed. If #7 heals up, when can he return to the field? What if they wish to replace him with #12?

RULING If #7 comes back into the game, he only needs to wait until the next stoppage of play. If he will be replaced by #12 though, #12 can enter the game only at the next legal substitution opportunity.

It’s Your Call

REVIEW Last month’s play involved a suspect block by a defensive player (found here). The block by B17 is correctly flagged for an illegal block below the waist. While not widely known by spectators, blocks below the waist (except for linemen immediately at the snap) are illegal for players on both sides of the ball. In this case, since the block was by the defense, the penalty is enforced 15 yards from the end of the run.

VOLLEYBALL Officiating ball handling is the topic of this month’s "It’s Your Call." This rally ends following the pass of a back-row player. What’s the call?

Retired NHL-er Back on Ice to Answer Call - By Making Them

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

March 16, 2023

The most accomplished skater on the ice during Friday’s triple-overtime MHSAA Division 1 Semifinal hockey thriller between Hartland and Brighton was not wearing the school colors of either team.

In front of a packed house at Plymouth’s USA Hockey Arena, referee Bryan Smolinski was in stripes, just like the rest of his officiating crew.

In his former life, he pulled on plenty of sweaters before lacing up the skates. That happens when one logs more than 1,000 games, tallies nearly 300 goals (274) and close to 400 assists (377) with eight teams spanning a 15-year playing career in the National Hockey League.

So, how did the 52-year-old former star player find himself on the ice last weekend as one of the referees for the pinnacle weekend of this high school season? Good question, even for the man known as “Smoke” during his playing days.

“I was working in youth development programs a few years back and reached out to some Michigan guys I had connections with about other ways to help the game,” Smolinski said. “I called Kevin May just to chat and asked, ‘Hey, how’s your reffing going?’ He said, ‘You know, we’re down a little bit,’ then said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I said, ‘Not a chance,’” Smolinski laughed.

Never Say Never

May persisted, imploring his friend to skate with him during a Fall league at Cranbook in Bloomfield Hills. After eight weeks, once a week, Smolinski had a revelation.

“I’m like, ‘I’m kind of diggin’ this,’” Smolinski said “So, I did all the testing, and the educational part of it, and I really enjoyed it. I got with Danny (DiCristofaro) and his group, and he put me in as much as he could, and I really started to get my feet wet.”

Smolinski, a retired NHL standout, communicates with the Bulldogs' bench.DiCristofaro is the assigner and referee-in-chief for the MHSAA’s Northeast Hockey Referees Association, and he has seen Smolinski’s growth first-hand.

“Obviously he’s got great instincts and a feel for the game, along with a wealth of experience, all of which has allowed him to climb the ladder quickly,” said DiCristofaro. “It’s been a joy to watch his growth as an official.”

Fast forward to last Friday, and there were Smolinski and May sharing duties as referees during the MHSAA Semifinal with linesmen Michael Andrews and Thomas Robbins.

In between, there has been a learning curve that still continues, but the jump to officiating was not quite as daunting as his introduction to the NHL.

“I was scared to death. My first game was against Mario Lemieux. I’m in the old Boston Garden and now I’m playing against these guys and it’s their job, and they’re out there trying to make a living,” Smolinski recalled.

The emotions were not running nearly as frenzied for his first game as an MHSAA official, obviously, yet respect came in a different form.

“I couldn’t pick the puck up, I was breathing heavily; it was Kevin and me doing a two-man game in Brighton,” Smolinski recalled. “There were a few high-end kids playing, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m dying here.’ You know, there’s no training for that first time.”

What that experience did, however, was revitalize Smolinski in a new way. His playing career is well documented, not only in the NHL, but around Michigan. He enjoyed an honor-laden career at Michigan State University from 1989-93 before joining the Boston Bruins (who had drafted him three years earlier) at the end of the ’93 NHL campaign. Even after his final season, with Montreal in 2007-08, he stayed in the game via men’s leagues, or coaching his son, Max.

Smolinski and his wife, Julie, have three daughters: Ashtyn (22), Jojo (16) and Rylen (12), along with Max, whom dad coached for seven years including during a national championship run with a Little Caesars U15 team in 2019. Max, 19, is now playing collegiately at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

So, for Smolinski, officiating offers a new chapter.

“Reffing brought back ... I wouldn’t say love of the game, because that’s always been there; it’s a different side of enjoying the game now. I have no horse in the race, my son’s off to college, my daughters are doing their thing; I wanted to find something new in the game,” Smolinski said. “I’ve coached, and I don’t want to do that. I found this, and I’ve stuck with it.”

Old College Ties

One of the great benefits of athletics at any level are the friendships made. For two kids who met in their first years on the MSU campus and forged a bond that lasts to this day, it’s amazing how their careers reached the pinnacle and have now come full circle.

Wes McCauley, an MSU teammate, is one of Smolinski’s best friends. After numerous years in the minor leagues, McCauley, like his friend, made it to the NHL. But McCauley made it as an official, working his first NHL game in 2003, when Smolinski was nearing the end of his playing career.

Smolinski keeps watch during game play. Their games lined up on just a few occasions in the NHL, and the two lobbied hard to have McCauley work Smolinski’s 1,000th career game in his final season with the Canadiens in 2007-08. The request, sadly, was denied by the league.

On the rare occasions when the friends did share the same ice, less than a handful by Smolinski’s count, it was McCauley who was forced to rebuff any attempts at fraternization. It’s just part of an official’s edict.

“For both of us, it was amazing; it was just great,” Smolinski said. “I’d say, ‘Hey man what’s up?’ and he says, ‘Can’t talk.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean, we talk all the time.’ Again, he’s like, ‘Can’t talk, get away from me.’ You know, it was just business.”

McCauley then reached the 1,000-game plateau himself in 2018 and is still going strong as a regular selection for playoff duties with nine Stanley Cup Finals assignments, including last year.

 So, it should have been natural for Smolinski to go to his old friend immediately for officiating pointers once he joined the ranks, right? Well, maybe not immediately.

“I talk to Wes all the time, but I actually hid it from him right out of the gate because I didn’t want to take his razzing. Eventually it got out, and he was loving it. He started sending me whistles and visors and pants,” Smolinski said, grinning. “And none of it fit, you know, because I’m older and fatter, and he’s so damn skinny. So, I still had to go out and get all new gear.”

Both Sides Now

Having been to the top of his profession, now moving to the other side of that same mountain that his friend McCauley scaled, the respect has grown for those blowing the whistle.

“The preparation for officiating is much more mental,” Smolinski said. “Way more rules oriented. You’re always trying to get away with things that you can as a player; now you have to police that.”

Smolinski has a distinct advantage.

“I know everything they’re trying to do because I’ve done it. I know where you’re going with the puck, I know what kind of breakout you’re trying to do,” Smolinski said. “I have all the instincts, now I just try to stay out of the way and not ruin their game. The most fun is watching the game develop and the ups and downs. For me to be out there and enjoy it with them, that’s the fun part.”

Smolinski, third from left, with his crew: Michael Andrews, Kevin May and Thomas Robbins.Those who have played hockey at any level have a built-in advantage should they consider the officiating avocation: the ability to skate. Unlike officiating in any other sport, skating is a prerequisite. This makes the pool limited, and almost solely composed of former players. Smolinski offers this advice.

“I prefer sticking with high school because I think there’s more decorum, more administrative structure. Kids are playing for their schools, there’s loyalty there,” said Smolinski. “And there is more accountability. People need report to athletic directors and supervisors. Other levels can be more loosely governed, or a bit more maverick in nature. Moms and dads get involved more, coaches maybe know a little less,” said Smolinski.

He has, in fact, worked a handful of non-school games, and there’s a stark difference.

“I wanted to see what was going on, and I see it first-hand,” Smolinski said. “There are some crazy people and parents out there, and these guys are getting absolutely tortured. I’ve been tortured. There has to be a level of respect for what officials do. I think schools can rein that in a little more. All the guys I’ve met give up a lot of time and work hard because they love to do it and love the game.”

All sports need an assist from school administration and from those who once played the games to keep the officials recruitment moving in the right direction. People like Smolinski can help.

“He clearly doesn’t need to do this, and that’s what makes it so fantastic,” DiCristofaro said. “We need more people who have played – at any level – to do what he’s done and stay in the game as officials.”

Smolinski continues to promote the game in other ways as well. Currently he is involved in the NHL’s Learn To Play initiative, which aims to inspire youth and welcome more families into the hockey community.

“We work hand-in-hand with the NHL Players Association for player development and industry growth,” Smolinski said. “Ages 5 to 9 are introduced to hockey, get head-to-toe gear and instruction, and meet some former players.”

The idea is to have fun first, which can translate into years and maybe even a lifetime in the sport. It’s a lifetime that has given Smolinski so much and continues to do so as he watches it unfold for others from his new vantage point.

PHOTOS (Top) MHSAA official Bryan Smolinski signals during Friday's Division 1 Semifinal between Brighton and Hartland. (2) Smolinski, a retired NHL standout, communicates with the Bulldogs' bench. (3) Smolinski keeps watch during game play. (4) Smolinski, third from left, with his crew: Michael Andrews, Kevin May and Thomas Robbins.