The Idle American

Whistle-blowers fading away ...

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“He ‘takes after’ his dad,” old-timers used to say about young boys in their formative years. I didn’t hear the expression often, because much of whom the late T. J. Newbury was, I wasn’t.

Limited to an 11-year public school education, he was a common laborer, spending most of his adult life in helping folks “stay connected” to natural gas in their rural Brown County homes. He fixed pipelines, and kept things civil even during rare service disruptions, when customers sometime threatened to forego natural gas.

He knew they wouldn’t, because most of them remembered the labor involved in chopping wood for the fireplace and cookstove….

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Athletic in a “sandlot, makeshift and country” sort of way, he played baseball and basketball.

At least, that’s what I overheard as he joked about bygone days with friends.

He never bragged or yelled, claiming early on the importance of civility and respect….

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In those days, he was the single official who “called” basketball games for both boys’ and girls’ teams, even for eight-school tournaments held on Thursdays through Saturdays. My memory of those tournaments is foggy, but I know he was proud of making $15 for just three days of work.

Recalled are between-game conversations with coaches and fans. “I probably missed that one,” he’d laugh about some call that could have gone either way.

They knew, as he did, that he was the final authority, and that he’d officiate as fairly as he could. Civility would be a high priority, and when potentially volatile calls were made, he’d soften his response to coaches with these words: “It looked to me like…”

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Those five words seemed to ease tensions. They meant that he was working as hard as he could to “get things right,” and that sometimes, he’d be wrong. More important than the “rightness or wrongness” of his decisions was that civility and respect WOULD be maintained.

The old striped shirt hung in his closet for years after his officiating. When I got to college, I, too, officiated some high school games, like dad did, blowing the same whistle he handed down to me.

In the late 1950s, there were the same two officials for the boys’ and girls’ games, and we usually were paid $10 each nightly, with a mileage reimbursement of three cents paid for one car. We were expected to travel together….

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Things were still pretty calm, and I thought maybe I “took after” my dad as a game official. Sometimes I even used the “It-looked-to-me-like” line.

One fan in Sidney provided encouragement and validation. A few games into our friendship, however, I learned he was blind.

After a few years, I realized that basketball is a game-as one fan noted-”improbable to coach and impossible to officiate.” The “it-looked-to-me-like” line takes one just so far….

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Without question, sports officiating-like about everything else-has gotten out of hand. Some high school football coaches are campaigning to add two more game officials.

But, the cupboard is bare. Throughout the country, numbers are dwindling. In Texas, more officials are over 60 than under 30, and most are 50 or over. Games are being scheduled on Thursdays and Saturdays, in additional to usual Fridays. About half of new officials hang up whistles after one season.

A survey revealed 80 percent leave because of abuse. When civility and respect disappear, much will have been lost….

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