Behind the Stripes: Sutton has learned a lot about the game he loves through reffing

HOUGHTON — We see them on the field, court and ice all season long, but what does it really take to officiate a sporting event? Michigan Tech senior chemical engineering student James Sutton has been an MHSAA official for two seasons after testing to become an official in 2013. He has enjoyed the experience enough that he plans to continue officiating after college.

“I casually registered to be an official (during) my senior year of high school in 2013, but then I ended up running track and field in college for two years and never actually reffed any events. Once I stopped running track, I picked it back up,” Sutton said. “I just finished my second season up in the Copper Country. I love it (because) it keeps me involved in local athletics and (I) get to be involved in high school sports.

“It’s been super rewarding for me so far. This is my last year at (Michigan) Tech, so this is my last year in the Copper Country. I plan to continue officating when I move down to Ohio for my job.”

Sometimes fans find it hard to agree with a call that has been made by an official, much like the controversial ending to the Division 3 boys basketball state final involving Iron Mountain, but Sutton sees the job as an opportunity for players to learn and grow.

“We’re our own little band, a tight knit group. We’re a local association,” he said. “I’m sure it’s the same no matter where you go. There’s a saying we have, on your best night, you are fifty percent wrong. No matter if you blow your whistle, or if you don’t, somebody is going to disagree with the call.

“At the same time, I think it’s rewarding (because) you’re helping coach kids in a way. You’re teaching those kids to be responsible for their actions (and) to make sure that they understand that if they do things that are wrong, it’s not going to slip by the wasteside. It’s more of a life lesson.”

As a Newberry High School alum, Sutton played basketball and football and ran track. Those previous experiences have helped him as an official and given him a different perspective on the job. Since his time as an athlete, he has gained a respect for those who officiate.

“The biggest thing that I took away from being a high school athlete, you learn the game, first and foremost, by playing the game. You learn the game (and) if you do decide to pick up officiating down the road, you still remember all those things.”

“There’s a better learning curve because you can anticipate which way a player’s going to move (and) how they’re thinking,” he said. “You might catch a call or two that somebody who doesn’t know the game as well (misses).”

Sutton has enjoyed the last couple of seasons, even if being in a small area means seeing the same teams time and time again.

“When we were in school, we weren’t any good. The refs were an easy scapegoat for us, but (we didn’t have) a winning mentality from the start. It definitely wasn’t the refs that were causing those contests to go the wrong way,” Sutton said. “We’re from a small town. We had the same guys night in and night out, so you had the same (refs) every night. Being a ref now myself, I definitely understand that (because) I ref the same (players) and schools.”

Sutton is most proud of his ability to make quick decisions and the relationships that he has fostered in his two seasons as a basketball official.

“One of the things I’m proud of myself is being strong in my fundamentals, and my knowledge of the rulebook and the game, to be able to explain myself out of (difficult) situations. (The toughest part of) dealing with coaches when you’re in communities (for) a contest is to be build report. As a young official, you have to prove yourself because everybody wants to know that you know what you’re doing. To get through that and start building relationships with different coaches, it creates more of a family atmosphere (and makes for) better games,” said Sutton.

“(Coaches) may not agree with my call but (will) respect my position as an official and my understanding of the game. (They) won’t give you as much guff for sure. Those are the things I’m most proud of when I’m wearing the stripes.”

Most calls need to be made in a quick and efficient. Sutton has gathered some tips and tricks from officials that have more experience.

“There are retorts that they’ve gathered,” he said. “It’s all about efficiency because we only have a few seconds to have a discussion and to develop an understanding between each other before we have to go back to watching the contest on the floor. Things like that are valuable and those old-timers are full of snippets of information.”

Officiating is valuable to refs like Sutton because it keeps their respective sport alive and keeps players, and fans, safe.

“Officiating is important because it keeps key players and fans in check so distractions and things like that don’t take away from the contest,” said Sutton. “It also keeps the kids safe. We’re watching for (different) movements (because) these kids have a (long) season and if they get hurt early, that decreases a team’s chances to win (in the postseason).

“We’re there to keep the kids safe and to make sure it’s an enjoyable experience for them as they grow up so they keep coming throughout their years in high school. If they (enjoy it), then the the little kids that are watching the games too will grow up wanting to play the sport. It just keeps the machine well oiled.”

Sutton has enjoyed his time officiating in the Copper Country and advises anyone who may be interested in it to try it.

“It’s not nearly as scary as people make it seem. I’ve had nothing but a blast doing it,” he said. “I would recommend (that) anybody who is thinking about it to do it. It (has) paid off in spades. I’ve had such a great time doing it these last couple of years. I can’t see myself not doing it in the future, for sure.

“If you’re on the fence about officiating, don’t be, because people don’t give you as much guff as you’d think. It’s an incredible experience and I don’t think anybody would regret it. You may have one bad fan every once and awhile, but that’s going to be few and far between. It’s a (heck) of a time. If you want to stay involved in high school sports, take the test and become an official. We’ll get you mentored.”