Chapter 11 Second Rate Part I

Girls Got Game, June 2-4, 2017

As they had in previous years, the Akwesasne Women Warriors made all the preparations for their annual box lacrosse tournament, an exciting pre-season tilt to kick off the Ontario Women’s Box Lacrosse League season.  The arena floor time was booked and paid for, vendors arranged including the traditional raffle table, and out-of-town teams had booked local hotels.

The Girls Got Game tournament was a very important event in host’s season.  Akwesasne used the tournament as a mini training camp, evaluating players, and team building.  Along with the visiting teams, they enjoyed the socializing, getting to know the other teams in a more relaxed atmosphere – as the team that travelled the furthest during league play, it was nice for the Women Warriors to play on home turf.  The competition was good and the games were great fun.  Many memories were built over the course of that tournament over the many years.

One of the most important aspects of Girls Got Game was the opportunity for the Akwesasne team to fundraise.  OWBLL teams are run on a shoestring budget – sponsorship opportunities are limited and they do not charge admission to games.  Most of the teams rely on player fees & tournament fundraising to pay for expenses – the game costs, referee payments, and OLA fees.  It all adds up and must be paid.  Sometimes those expenses are out of pocket for the coach or team manager and they gladly contribute a little more here and there for the love of the game.

It was quite a shock then, when on the evening of Thursday, June 1st, a notice came out from the league commissioner cancelling the tournament due to lack of referees.  The notice had to be sent out early enough so that visiting teams did not start their travel and might still be able to cancel hotel bookings.  For the Akwesasne team however, the cancellation was not only heartbreaking, but a disaster from a fundraising standpoint.  They were out a lot of money and the season hadn’t even started.

OLA Priorities

In the days leading up to the tournament, there was a lot of back and forth between the league and the OLA regarding the referees.  A crew of three referees had been booked for the tournament, but one was injured the week before and that left only two refs for the whole tournament, a scenario not to the liking of the OLA, even though the league was willing to risk it.  The problem being if, during the tournament, one of the refs became injured, the tournament would have to be cancelled at that point if a substitute was not available.  A message from the commissioner went out to the league informing them of the situation and warning of a possible cancellation of the tournament.

As the deadline for canceling the event got closer, the search for substitute referees was winding up as the list of candidates dwindled down.  Last minute replacements for a tournament in eastern Ontario seemed to be problematic – no one was available.  Then it was discovered that one of the refs scheduled, would not be available for the Sunday games; this triggered the decision to cancel the tournament.

Even though teams were warned about the possibility, the notice that the tournament was cancelled was still a shock.  Cancelling a box lacrosse tournament was an unprecedented event, something that had not happened with the women’s league before.  In fact, no one could remember when a tournament was cancelled due to lack of referees; certainly no minor tournaments had been cancelled.  Moreover, when games had been cancelled due to lack of referees, it was because they didn’t show up, not because refs were not available to be scheduled.  This event was unique to the women’s league.

So how does something like this happen? As a member of the OLA, the OWBLL has access to referees through the contract signed with the Ontario Lacrosse Referees Association.  By 2017, the OWBLL had transitioned from having their own Referee-in-Chief handle the referee scheduling, to having the scheduling done by the OLA.  In fact, during this episode, both the OLA VP of Officiating and an assistant were involved.  So how does an annual tournament, whose game schedule was submitted to the OLA months ahead of the date, get cancelled at the last minute due to lack of referees?  There were no minor tournaments on that weekend in eastern Ontario and there were referees available to do the handful of junior games all over the region.  So how does a women’s tournament, which the OLA knew of well in advanced of any referee scheduling requirement, get cancelled?

One factor suggested was that the OWBLL did not pay for referee accommodations, meals, or mileage thus referees were reluctant to travel to this tournament.  If this were the case, this meant that out of town referees (level 3 and above) would have been available to schedule.  However, the OWBLL were not contractually required to provide accommodations, meals, or mileage.  One of the reasons for this was because the referees were far more amply paid for OWBLL games that they were for any other, including the pay rate for a Major Series game.  OWBLL games are scheduled in tournament or game-day formats, where referees were paid $40 to ref 45-minute games.  For the Girls Got Game tournament, a 3 referee crew meant that each referee would earn up to $280 for the weekend.  In addition, two of the originally scheduled referees were local and no travel was required.

Another factor brought up was that of referee availability in the eastern Ontario region at the time – there simply were not enough referees to go around which made last minute scheduling impossible.  One of the original 3 man crew did get injured, an unforeseen glitch, but even minor tournaments schedule enough referees for such eventualities.

There were 9 minor tournaments played that weekend, all of them west of Toronto, but 6 of those tournaments were one day events.  There were no minor tournaments at all in eastern Ontario during that time and most minor zone games are scheduled for weekdays.  There were only 5 Junior games, three of them in close proximity to Akwesasne.  The idea that there were no referees available, even to come in a referee a game or two is a bit sketchy, especially the tournament, held at roughly the same time every year, had never been cancelled before.

A third factor of interest is that there was a definite lack of oversight on the situation.  For most of their years, the OWBLL had their own Referee-in-Chief who would arrange for referees.  This worked well for them since, as a new league with special requirements, close attention could be paid to referees to determine who was a suitable fit for the league.  However, among adult OLA leagues – Major Series, Senior B – this was not the norm and referee scheduling was handled exclusively by the OLA.  In 2017, the OWBLL replaced their RIC with a scheduler appointed by the OLA VP of Officiating.  Seeing that the scheduler was a skilled referee, with plenty of referee administrative experience, such an oversight would have to be extraordinary.  After this incident, the scheduler excused himself from scheduling OWBLL games and another person took over for that year.  There were no more incidents like this for the rest of the year and the OWBLL returned to using an RIC for the 2018 & 2019 seasons.

It may well be that the true cause of the cancellation comes down to a critical portion of each factor playing a part toward an ultimate end.  It certainly seems rational.  However, if each factor played a part in the decision to cancel the tournament, there might have also been a theme linking those factors together in a sort of coherent reason.  It is that theme I will take up next.

Next: Chapter 12 Second Rate Part II