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League's Officiating DEI Council addresses equity in recruiting

Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2023 - 12:53 PM

Lisa Schuler-Carolyn Derksen

From the May 2023 edition of High School Today Magazine. Reprinted with permission from the NFHS High School Today Editorial Board

By Tim Leighton

HST Editorial Board 

Over the warmer months of the year, Lamarr Sullivan, a longtime Minnesota basketball official and state association clinician, will attend youth and high school-level tournaments to observe officials. He says that about 70 percent of the officials working those summer games are individuals of color. Go to any gym during the winter season, he says, and the composition of officials is the total opposite.

“Where is the disconnect?” he asked. “That is the question. I need to do what I can to bridge that gap.”

Lisa Schuler, a high-energy business professional who officiates high school football in Minnesota, sees the need for more female officials as well as an increased officials’ outreach to individuals of color.  

“We are in a challenging time; it is like marrying two topics as we deal with two major issues at once,” she said. “And you don’t want to cloud either one of them. We are so aware of the societal climate while also trying to shore the gap of officials. We have an opportunity to get this right, but we are walking a fine line. There isn’t a blueprint for what we are doing.”

When asked to help find solutions, they didn’t hesitate to act.

Sullivan and Schuler are part of what is believed to be a first-of-its-kind group, the Minnesota State High School League’s Officiating DEI Council. The group was formed more than two years ago, in part, following waves of civil unrest that raced across the country in the wake of racism and other human inequities.

The League’s Officiating DEI Council’s stated mission is to build awareness with member schools, student-athletes, and the community to support the recruitment and retention of officials that are historically from under-represented groups, such as females and individuals of color. The group’s goal is that through commitment, it will achieve a forum that will inform and improve the relationships with member schools, coaches, administrators and the community by implementing a consistent method of training across all officials’ groups related to cultural variations.

In agreeing to serve on the Officiating DEI Council, each of the 10-person committee members sign a covenance that affirms their commitment to advance equity and build an environment of trust, respect and safety. The group is composed of officials, educators, administrators and business leaders.

High School Today visited with four members of the group, all of whom shared their eagerness in serving on the council. In listening to learn, they aspire to be a part of a collaborative effort that embraces new perspectives by drawing on their own officiating challenges and life experiences with goals of addressing officiating needs and breaking down barriers.

Carolyn Derksen

Carolyn Derksen

“We’ve all had different journeys in officiating. Some people started officiating right out of college and others started later. Regardless of how you got into officiating, we must embrace that journey that all officials are on and be supportive both on and off the competition floor or field. Being on this committee is that same kind of nervous energy you might get before a game. You want to study, listen and hear other perspectives before setting some direction . . .  My role is to offer the perspective of a younger official. My second year of officiating was my most challenging. I almost didn’t come back for Year 3. I am very grateful that I had the mindset that I wasn’t going to let one year deny me of something that could be wonderful. After surviving Year 2, something clicked . . .  We need female officials, minority officials, and officials in general. We need to be kind to one another as well. We see too much of the opposite when it comes to officiating . . .  I want to be a person that looks out for other people and this council is an opportunity for me to do so.”

Lisa Schuler

Lisa Schuler

“We are in a challenging time and we don’t want to bury our heads in the sand. Being a part of this wonderful group of individuals is an opportunity to create awareness, share common connections and create positive messaging . . .  I was very flattered to be asked to serve because there are so few women’s officials, especially working high school football. It feels like an opportunity to be an advocate for an under-represented group of potential officials . . . As officials, we do a lot of study and a lot of training to ensure we are prepared to make the right calls. The same is true with this group. We’ve got to learn together and lead by being advocates for officiating and equity . . . From the perspective of an empty-nest mom, I didn’t know how much love and joy I would find in officiating. I am so proud to be an official and I want to share that with others.”


Jenni Smith

Jenni Smith

 “From the moment I was asked to serve, my mind has been racing with questions, goals and strategies. I was ready to dive right in, meet others and come together with a united effort to address challenges in officiating and ways that we can extend the reach of the avocation to others  . . . While roles are still developing, these leaders are looking at the challenges in activities and asking the questions: how can we promote equity and inclusion in officiating? We are also here to serve current officials to ensure they have a positive journey . . . I must admit, until I joined this group, I was a little naïve on the challenges that some officials face . . .  In my 20 years as a gymnastics official, there has been a support system in place. That is vital to the success of an official and I want officials to know that the support system is here to serve them . . . When I first started officiating as a college freshman, I lacked confidence. There were harder coaches to deal with, and I went through a period of intimidation. In connecting with other officials, it was a great growing opportunity. It made me a better person and a better official. In that same way, we can become better through this Officiating DEI Council. I am super optimistic that something positive is in the works.”


Lamar Sullivan

Lamarr Sullivan

“You can’t solve anything that you aren’t aware of, right? This committee will bring these major topics to the table. It’s simple: We need to recruit more women and more officials of color. We must do so during a challenging time in our society. How do we do that? It’s through training, mentoring and the assurance that new officials will have the tools to succeed . . . The only thing I knew about officiating before I started was that Bobby Knight and John Calipari would yell at officials. And the officials would take it. My first two years as an official, I modeled that. I took it. I made a conscience decision that I need to be able to have the tools to communicate across all barriers. I will draw on that now as a leader . . . With (fellow committee member), Teron Buford, we helped found the Minnesota Alliance of Officials of Color. That happened when guys were complaining that they weren’t being selected for the state tournament. We said, “let’s not cry the blues, let’s get better, let’s work with others for the betterment of all.” In that same way, we can work on this DEI Council to get better and do a much better job of being a united avocation.”


DEI Kevin Britt
DEI BB crew

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