Several years ago, the Browning’s boys’ basketball team played an afternoon game on the first day of the Central A Divisional tournament in Belgrade.
Browning fans showed up in full force like they always do. This time, though, some were holding signs that were a bit different than what you usually see at a high school game.
One sign simply read, “Hey ref, don’t cheat.” Many other signs had similar sentiment.
This, mind you, was for the first game of the tournament. Not a single travel had yet been called on the team from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
The fans from Browning clearly entered the tournament with a ton of built-up paranoia and resentment. They did not think their boys and girls would get a fair shot from the men and women in stripes.
All these years later, it is easy to see why the Browning fans would think they were getting less than a fair shake. Native Americans in Montana, and throughout the country, have faced a long, ugly history of racism that too many of us have turned a blind eye to.
The teams from the reservations do not trust us, and we have given them more than enough reasons to feel that way.
Over the last several years, racism against American Indians has become more obvious and more open. It is a nation-wide problem, but here in Montana we have a front-row seat.
From Woody’s Country Store in Kalispell refusing to serve Browning’s cross country team, to a Columbia Falls fan holding up a “FTI” sign at a divisional game, to a popular Billings radio personality promoting separate but equal state tournaments for the native schools, racists have done little to mask their feelings.
Last week, we saw another incident that many will blame on racism when Malta played host to Rocky Boy, another reservation team, in a high school boys’ basketball game.
Out of protest and understandable disgust, the Rocky Boy team walked off the court with 4 minutes, 37 seconds left in the game. That came after the third absolutely ridiculous technical foul was called on Rocky Boy.
First, Rocky Boy’s Ben Crebs was called for a technical for slapping the backboard while trailing a breakaway layup by a Malta player. Crebs was a little late on the block and made contact with the glass, but not the malicious kind.
Another technical came when Joe Demontiney of Rocky Boy tried to draw a charging foul as a Malta player drove baseline. Demontiney hit the ground after the players collided, and he was T’d up from “flopping.”
Another “flopping” call was the final straw for Rocky Boy. Crebs grabbed a long rebound on a rejected shot and launched deep 3-pointer. A Malta defender crashed into Crebs as he was coming down, and Crebs was knocked to the floor.
A referee quickly called the technical on the player who was just knocked down by a hit that would knock most players down.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the Rocky Boy players did flop, which they did not. In that case, it still seems insane that a referee would think either was deserving of a technical foul.
I have seen countless actual flops in my nearly a quarter of a century writing about high school basketball games. Not once have I seen one result in a technical.
The same can be said about the slap of the backboard. That happens without a technical in nearly every single boys’ game, and the Crebs slap was gentler than most.
Three such calls going against one team is indeed highly suspect.
Last night’s finish between Rocky Boy and Malta ended in controversy after the Stars walked off the court with 4:32 left in protest of several technical foul calls. Here are some of the plays and calls that led to things boiling over. #mtscores https://t.co/AoHyaTlRbW pic.twitter.com/qko3W2MREH
— Tom Wylie (@WylieTom) February 3, 2021
The second technical on Crebs led to Rocky Boy walking off the court, losing 62-47. Highlights, or lowlights, of the game have gone viral as players, coaches and fans from native schools collectively said, “See, this is what we’ve been telling you about.”
This is why Browning fans made those signs.
You would have a hard time convincing me that the crew did not have some kind of previous bias against the Rocky Boy players. While native players and fans will likely say they know why, it is hard for me to say for sure what the motive was.
The Montana High School Association is investigating, and there is no denying one truth. The best-case scenario for these officials is that they are not good enough at their craft to work a varsity basketball game. Or a junior varsity game, for that matter.
The worst-case is, well, you can fill in the blank.
I talked to one official of native descent, and he seems to think the former is the case. He watched video of the entire game. Instead of racism, he saw bad officials who were “pathetically” out of position and often lazy.
Other officials said they were angry at the guys in Malta because they made all officials look bad. They could not believe that an official would call a technical and then stare down the coach.
Unfortunately, we just might have to get used to such poor officiating.
While we may never see so many ridiculous calls in one game like this again, basketball fans should all brace themselves for less-than stellar whistles as we move forward.
Montana has some outstanding officials working games. That is evident every year at the state tournaments, when the best of the best work the biggest games.
However, officiating pools have been shrinking for years, meaning your chances of drawing the best referees for your big games have become less and less. The COVID-19 pandemic has cut those chances down even more.
In Missoula alone, the pool is down from 96 officials during the 2019-20 season to 54 this year.
While some officials might come back when the pandemic ends, many of them will not. They just might get used to weekends of not being accused of cheating. They might realize that parents and courtside Karens are getting worse each season, not better.
As it is, we are reaching a panic-level shortage of officials. The National Federation of State High School Associations has basically been begging more people to sign up to be officials.
The organization touts the benefits to refereeing:
You will be a great role model. It is a great way to stay in good physical condition. You will earn extra income, and the money is not bad. You will expand your network of friends and have fun.
All of those are true if — and this is a very big if — you have extremely thick skin. You have to be able to put up with accusations of cheating and incompetence at every game.
Not everyone is capable of refereeing, but we all know good people who are. Encourage them to sign up. Tell them the benefits of a job well done. Let them know how nice it will look on a résumé.
As the “don’t cheat” signs would suggest, it will be hard to convince the Browning fans that they are not getting the shaft. It will also take a lot more than more quality officials to stomp out the ugly racism that seems to be growing stronger instead of fading away.
But it could go a long way toward building some trust for the native schools, and that is a monumental task that is way overdue.
Plus, basketball players of all races deserve better than what we saw last week in Malta.