Back in 1987 when former NBA player Sam Williams witnessed firsthand the lack of African-Americans refereeing high school basketball in Milwaukee and the practices denying officials of color upward professional advancement, he knew right away something needed to be done. He lived a special connection to the game and understood through immersion the fundamental life lessons taught and learned through team sports. The character-building, work ethic and fortitude gained through striving for common goals shaped Sam’s view of the world and compelled him to address inequity head-on. Sam’s love for playing, however, was only a pathway to a much larger purpose.
Beyond motivation spurred by basic fairness and inclusion, Sam’s passion for empowering youth found unexpected access through the game he loved. A new of method of engagement materialized through a change in perspective – one with a whistle. From player to ref he went, along with the vocational redirection which brought stark awareness of the startling absence of referee role models validating a connection to the game as administrators. Coaches, AD’s and other youth sports directors were ever-present throughout the city but demonstrated proficiency to control the game within the lines had not yet been established or accredited in numbers. A vision of managing the game “top-down” as officials and “bottom-up” as mentors appeared. It was time to accept (and hasten) the challenge as preservationists and guardians – time to recruit, prepare a Training & Development program, and initiate vocational opportunities potentially leading to the NBA, WNBA, NCAA or Wisconsin State High School Basketball championships.
Sam understood through immersion – the fundamental life lessons can be learned through team sports
The task of formal advocacy for qualified and deserving minority officials begins in the summer of 1987 with the formation of the Midwest Minority Officials Association (MMOA). Milwaukee City Conference Commissioner Jan Doleschal, recreation supervisor Chuck Hinz and varsity officials LaMarr Franklin and Steve Voboril are quickly recruited as key team members in rolling out an action plan. Athletes For Youth Director Roy C. Hill offers his youth basketball leagues as training grounds, and recruitment is charged to community youth organizer Ron Fancher. The rubber and the road meet on the court at LaVarnway Boys & Girls club with the very first MMOA training clinic. Almost 30 years later, the association sets a new mark of accomplishment with thirteen state tournament officials.
Officiating at the state tournament in Madison is the pinnacle of achievement for every high school basketball referee in the state. While the proper focus is on the players, teams and schools that fight their way to the Kohl Center in March every year, the same effort and dedication is required of every referee who strives to get there and be recognized by peers and supervisors as one of the best. Until this year, the MMOA had never sent more than ten members and that was in 2009. Last year, only three black officials were assigned to the state tournament. If you missed the game they worked you never saw an African American official anywhere on the court in Madison over two full weekends of playoffs. While advocacy for officials of color is a transparent undertaking, MMOA core principles prohibit promotion of the unqualified. Organizational integrity is steadfastly maintained by advancement through merit. Merit-based promotion levels playing fields and prevents even the hint of impropriety or favoritism. After nearly three decades of struggling for equal representation, it appears the WIAA may now have an elevated sense of inclusion. Time will tell.
Retired FAA Tech Ops Supervisor and 25-year referee Joe Lawrence is going to Madison for the first time. So are 20-plus year vets Financial Advisor Rodney Matthews and Milwaukee Boppers legend Larry Beatty. Husband and wife officials Steve and Denita Johnson celebrate a decade of state tournament appearances. Long-time journeyman Wes Porter and his partner, newly-selected Wisconsin state Hall of Fame official Chuck Hardrick, are back on the floor. MPS grad and educator Thad Hilliard, US Postal supervisor Ted Ford, Transportation Operations manager Bryant Johnson, Minister and Engineer Claude Williams, Wisconsin state specialist Pam Alexander and MMOA President Ellis Miles also receive deserved return engagements to the Kohl Center. For each of these poignant testimonies of endurance, another waits in the wings.
So 2017 becomes a banner year for the MMOA as recognized by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA), the non-profit governing agency and state tournament assignor for all high school sports based in Stevens Point. The WIAA has finally seen fit to reward officials of color with due recognition and corresponding assignments in Madison after 30 years. Seems Diversity & Inclusion may now be an active component of the WIAA’s agenda. While the “D&I” concept has been top-of-mind for a least two corporate generations, sometimes in Wisconsin such initiatives do not move as rapidly as we would like. But in the years to come, the MMOA will continue to monitor progress and continued inclusion diligently. The number of quality minority officials in the state is growing – not diminishing. That should translate into Wisconsinites and the world being able to turn on their devices and see officials of color readily at the Wisconsin State tournament – just as we see in the NCAA, WNBA and NBA. This significant milestone should serve only as the benchmark for future state tournament assignments. With nearly 100 deserving and game-ready African-American officials in the state presently, it shouldn’t be difficult to keep this momentum on track.
Finally the MMOA has been recognized and their capable members rewarded with 13 state tournament assignments. I’m sure Sam, the basketball community and maybe a few future referees will be watching with pride and tears.
Billy Young is a former General Manager of 1290 WMCS Radio and Executive Director of the Daniels Conference Center. He relocated back to his home in California in 2012 but remains closely connected to Milwaukee through his co-directorship of the annual Fellowship Open Golf Tournament, his ongoing involvement with youth sports, and his sons Josh and Zak and brother Jeff who live and work in Milwaukee. He still referees high school basketball and volleyball regularly and has become an avid runner, completing five 10k runs in 2016. Mr. Young is a 5-time Wisconsin state tournament basketball official and past President of the MMOA.