Home Sports Local Sports Where have all of New Mexico’s referees gone?

Where have all of New Mexico’s referees gone?

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Here a group of referees discuss a call during the Roswell, Goddard game at Ground Zero. (Shawn Naranjo Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

David Osuna is from a place called Pojoaque, New Mexico, which is 15 miles north of Santa Fe. He retired as a deputy chief at the New Mexico State Police in 2002. At the age of 42, he started refereeing basketball around the state. Osuna got his start in refereeing when another state police officer convinced him to do it.

After refereeing high school games in Albuquerque, Little League basketball, church leagues and AAU leagues, Osuna, at the age of 52, was hired by the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, which is Division II. He was hired to do both men’s and women’s games. Some of the RMAC schools include Adams State; Fort Lewis and New Mexico Highlands. He was good enough to do junior college league games in region nine.

“Father time was starting to catch up with me,” Osuna said. “My knees are starting to bother me, and I just had my right knee replaced in June.”

Osuna health woes have forced him to slow down to where he wants to stick with the college game. This area used to be part of the southeast region, from Clovis on down. Somehow the region was split in half and now Roswell and all the schools down south, which includes 15 schools, is now called the south region. It includes Roswell, Goddard, Carlsbad, Artesia, Hobbs, Lovington and the smaller classification schools.

The south region had hired a guy from this area, and he resigned prior to the season beginning. Osuna was hired to assign games in the south region. He gave up his college career to do this job. Not only does he assign official’s games, he observes and evaluates referees in order to help them get better.

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He also is retired and has a private practice as a private investigator.

Osuna wants young people to know there is money to be made as a referee. In Division I women’s games, depending on what conference it is, a referee can make anywhere from $800 a game in the Big Sky Conference to $3,000 a game in the SEC. Some of the high-profile referees are doing 50-60 games in a five-month season.

On the men’s side, the lower-level conferences pay $1,000 a game. Pac-12, Big East, Big Ten and SEC referees make several thousand dollars a game. Doing junior college games, he makes a flat rate of $150 a game. When he does Division II games, he makes over $300 a game and will often do doubleheaders or back-to-back games. He says the average high school game pays about $53 a game, and junior high pays $27 a game.

Osuna said in order to get into the big-time, it is like anything else, one has to pay their dues, be good and have a little luck. The top guys who have those positions are not retiring because of the money and good benefits.

“To make it to the top,” Osuna said, “you have to have an opportunity, a window of opportunity and most importantly, you have to be good.”

Osuna wants to stress upon young men and women that they can actually pay their way through college by refereeing. The sub-level assignor in Albuquerque, which includes C-level, junior varsity and junior high, have 2,500 games to assign and 1,500 varsity games in a season. Plus, they have a tournament on the weekend. With the Albuquerque Youth Basketball League they play during the week and the weekend, Osuna estimates that a person can make $200-$500 a week just to officiate basketball.

A week after the state basketball tournament is over with, then AAU season begins. A person can referee year ‘round. In AAU, the pay is $25 a game for one hour’s worth of work. Osuna has been good enough to travel out of Las Vegas, and referee NBA summer league games. He feels like the money is secondary when he is out in Vegas refereeing, but it is the high quality of basketball that is being played. He makes $25 a game.

“There is a system that is set up,” Osuna said. “Some of the guys are at mid-level and are placed with a veteran official and are given opportunities to see if they can excel; in some cases they fail. In order to get better, they have to go to camp, they have to know the rules. Furthermore, they have to referee some games and do more than go to the games.”

Osuna thinks that unless there is a major pickup in referees signing up, there may not be anyone to officiate basketball games for 10 years. He notes that as an assignor in the south region (here), he has 70 referees at different levels. The referees whom the public sees at Roswell, Goddard and Hobbs’ games have been refereeing for a while.

“I told a local basketball team,” Osuna said, “Where are we going to be in 10 years? Who is going to referee games? A lot of our officials, if you take a look at them, are getting old. And that tells you sort of where we are. You can’t put a first-year guy on the Roswell/Goddard game, or the girl’s game. They have to have rule’s knowledge, be fleet of foot and have the ability to call the game — so that it doesn’t affect the game — so that you allow the players to determine the game.”

Many fans think all basketball rules are the same, but they’re not. Osuna has to know girl’s rules for high school, women’s rules for college and men’s rules. The problem Osuna is having around here is that many of the officials get off too late from their primary job to referee during the week, which causes a shortage. A lot of his officials are teachers, and they have trouble getting off for the 4 p.m. games. Not only that, but a lot of the referees have families or attend religious services during the week and weekend. Sometimes Osuna has to call Clovis for help to cover games.

Two of the top priorities Osuna is looking for in officials are, they have to be able to communicate with coaches and players. Officials and players will talk during the games at times, and in August and September, officials will attend a forum in Albuquerque and learn how to talk to coaches. Some of the speakers are from the WNBA, and NBA sponsored by the New Mexico Activities Association.

Before the game, the referees will talk about a coach’s history during pregame. During game situations, they are figuring out whether to give them a warning or to communicate with them. There’s a lot that has happened before an official will give a coach or player a technical. Osuna has told a coach that he has blown a call and admit it to the coach.

Anytime a referee ejects a player or coach, they have to call him immediately after the game. If they give a coach a technical, they have to notify Osuna as well. If coaches are unhappy with a game or call, they can call the NMAA to discuss it.

To become a referee in New Mexico, go to the New Mexico Activities Association website, go to the sidebar tab called officials, and register there. To become an official, there is a high school test to pass, a mechanics test and a rules test. In college, there is a test as well.

“The bottom line,” Osuna said, “we are hurting so bad for officials in every region. I’m trying to find a way to recruit new people. I’m even starting at the high school level. In this region, we have zero women officials, and this would be a gold mine for them.”