Officials Pam Hennesey (left) and Shannon Whiting talk during a break during a 2014 field hockey game between Dexter High School and Foxcroft Academy. The Maine Principals Association is seeking to expand the duties of its basketball commissioner position to that of commissioner of officials to work with officials in 14 other interscholastic sports, including field hockey, as well. Credit: Ashley L. Conti | BDN

When Charlie Wotton was named Maine’s first commissioner of basketball on May 1, 1955, it was seen as part of the solution to a threatened strike by some 300 high school referees around the state.

Not until after the State Principals’ Association and the Maine State Officials Council began negotiations the previous fall had there been any certainty the 1954-1955 season would even be played.

Those talks not only kept the whistleblowers on the court instead of in court. They led to the formation of the Maine Basketball Commission in an effort to foster improved relationships among schools and officials, improve the quality and consistency of basketball officiating, and create an authority to settle controversies related to tournament selection and play.

Nearly 65 years later, plans are in the works to expand the leadership duties first held by Wotton to cover 14 interscholastic sports in Maine that utilize game officials.

The Maine Principals’ Association — the former State Principals’ Association — is working to transform the position of basketball commissioner to that of commissioner of officials beginning with the 2019-2020 academic year.

That person would work as a liaison for schools, sports committees, conferences and other governing entities of the following sports: Field hockey, football, soccer, volleyball, basketball, ice hockey, swimming, wrestling, cheering, baseball, softball, boys’ lacrosse, girls’ lacrosse and track and field.

Subject areas would range from recruitment and retention of officials, ensuring all officials undergo required criminal background checks, and helping to provide more uniformity in such areas such as rules interpretation, the nomination and assigning of postseason officials and contract negotiations with officials groups.

“Years ago before all these other activities had risen to the level where they’re at, basketball probably was the one and only marquee sport we had,” said MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham. “I think now with the officials groups we have and the importance of all the activities we have, trying to bring consistency to them makes sense.”

The part-time position of commissioner of officials would be subsidized by MPA at the same level of funding — approximately $12,000 annually including expenses — that has been used to fund the commissioner of basketball, Burnham said.

The hiring of a commissioner of officials will coincide with the retirements this year of current commissioner of basketball Peter Webb and MPA executive director Dick Durost.

“Ultimately it will be a good thing,” said Allan Snell, a member of the Maine Basketball Commission, as well as secretary-treasurer of the Maine Association of Football Officials and the officials’ liaison to the MPA football committee. “I think part of the intent is to take some of those issues off the backs of MPA staff and to have a person work with all the sports rather than just basketball.”

Burnham said discussions about broadening the basketball commissioner’s scope to other sports were ongoing even before Webb made public his retirement plans after more than a quarter-century in the position, as early as two years ago when the MPA and officials’ groups were negotiating their most recent contracts.

“As those groups came through one after another, I would say more than half of the things they discussed had nothing to do with officials’ fees,” Burnham recalled. “It became apparent in a hurry that they were looking for us to provide some consistency among sports, and from that it evolved into ‘it would be nice to have some leadership for all of these groups.’”

Among the biggest challenges officials groups in virtually every sport around the state and nation face are insufficient numbers and an aging membership.

“That’s one issue that person will be working on, and there’s really two issues,” Snell said. “Recruitment is one issue, but we’re finding out now almost more (critical) than recruitment is retention.”

The planned change does not mean the end of the Maine Basketball Commission, which consists of coaches, officials, an athletic administrator and school principals and superintendents from around the state.

That panel held its most recent meeting last Thursday.

“There were questions because obviously moving forward it’s going to be a little different,” said Burnham of that meeting. “The recommendation was that they were going to continue with a commission. They thought it was worthwhile for a few times a year to bring a group together to discuss issues surrounding basketball.

“This is not in any way to eliminate the basketball commission or stop the creation of any other commission. It’s to have that one voice that works with all 14 of those officials groups.”

The State Basketball Council includes representatives from all five officiating boards for the sport in Maine. It recently voted — with the understanding that MPA funding for the basketball commissioner is going to be redirected to a commissioner of officials — to establish a coordinator of basketball officials.

That coordinator likely would have a role in the future selection of tournament officials, which has been one of Webb’s responsibilities.

That person also may become chair of the MPA’s Officials Advisory Committee, which was formed to foster additional dialogue in the aftermath of the most recent contract talks.

Burnham said the officials advisory panel will work to complete a job description for the commissioner of officials job at its next meeting, then the position will be advertised with plans to fill the vacancy this summer.

“There’ll be some bumps in the road and there’ll be some adjustments and there’ll be people who are enthusiastic about it and people who are opposed,” Snell said. ”But I think in the long run it will be a better arrangement.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...