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Bar News - March 16, 2016

Practitioner Profile: Looking Back on Life as an NCAA Ref


In one of Jim Gleason’s favorite photographs from his NCAA days, the 6-foot, 1-inch-tall ref tries to prevent a much larger athlete from fighting. After the game, the athlete sought him out and thanked him for intervening. Gleason, a Henniker lawyer, says he smiles every time he thinks of this player.

Tucked among a dozen resources available on Jim Gleason’s law practice website, for things like the New Hampshire Criminal Code and locations of courtrooms, there are also links to the NFL and NCAA.

For any other attorney, that might seem out of place. But for Gleason, it makes perfect sense. Without athletics, he would have lived quite a different life.

Two years ago, Gleason finally hung up his referee’s whistle and sidelined himself, ending his 20-year stint as an Atlantic 10 Conference NCAA football official. Until now, he’s been hesitant to talk about the experience – for one thing, it can get political. But looking back allows Gleason to see his life through a certain filter that few others can – the place where his 9-to-5 work ethic and his weekend-warrior mentality as a member of “the third team” collide.

Sports was everything to Gleason as a kid growing up in Michigan. He went on to play college ball at Northern Michigan University, graduating in 1975 before attending the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

Along the way he founded Henniker’s youth hockey program in 1981, and has contributed his time as legal counsel to other local youth athletic programs, all while building a busy law practice and helping raise four sports-loving kids.

But it has been his passion for the gridiron and head-to-head competition that possessed him to join the ranks of the most necessary – and often most maligned – members of the football elite.

Gleason started officiating high school and college lacrosse games shortly after he began practicing law in Henniker in 1978. He switched to football within a few years, moving up the ranks until he was accepted into the NCAA.

He didn’t know it at the time, but he had the distinction of being the first Division 1 referee from New Hampshire.

“When someone told me that, it caught me by surprise that I was the first, not only from New Hampshire, but at that time there wasn’t one from Maine or Vermont, either. It was satisfying for me to break that ice, and that glass ceiling,” says Gleason.

Now he’s proud to say that there are several other referees who hail from Northern New England. He’s even passed the torch, as it was passed on to him, by suggesting to some of the more outstanding athletes he’s encountered on the field that the thrills and spills of football don’t have to end for them after college.

He will also be the first to admit that life as a spectator is rough – it’s hard to resist the urge to second-guess a play – but Gleason is getting used to it. He refereed his final game on Nov. 23, 2013, University of Maine at UNH.

“I chose that game as my last to officiate for a few reasons, but one in particular was that I thought it would make a good bookend. My first pre-season assignment was a scrimmage at UNH. They wanted to give me a look, and from there, I got hired,” says Gleason.

The tradition among officials is that they get to pick where they want to end their career.

“And my crew is probably still not speaking to me – they’re a bunch of Southern guys – and when I told them I was giving it up, and my last game would be in November, they were hoping I’d ask for the Georgia Dome or Villanova/Richmond, or even Harvard/Yale,” Gleason says.

“But for me, it made perfect sense to finish in New Hampshire: I could drive to the game, sleep in my own bed, and my family could come watch. It was how my career started, and I figured it was a perfect way to end my career. It’s a great rivalry, two great programs and coaches, clean programs – the kind you’d want your kids playing for. It was the mountaintop, for me.”

Among the things the general public probably doesn’t think about much is the camaraderie among officials.

“Yes, it’s absolutely a team spirit. And that aspect surprised me when I got to the Division 1 level,” says Gleason.

He offers up an example of the kind of teamwork it takes to get through a game.

“It was early in my career, another Maine at New Hampshire game, so it was airing live on Channel 9, and there was a pass play down field. I was wearing the white hat, and I saw some flags on the ground, so I went down to see what was going on,” says Gleason.

“One official said it was offensive pass interference. I turned to the other official, who said it was defensive pass interference. Since I know we’re on live TV, I resisted the urge to grin. I called them in and I said, ‘Look at me now, and nod your heads slowly like we’re talking about it.’ I mean, what else can you do? One says offense and one says defense, and it’s not reviewable by instant replay, so we had to make a decision,” Gleason says. “And that’s what we did.”

He drove home that night understanding the importance of having faith in his crewmates.

“There’s a certain rhythm to being an official. You’re part of a seven-man crew; you fly out Fridays so you can be in the game city by 6 p.m. and you watch game films of the teams that night, literally just like a sports team would,” Gleason says.

Pre-season training begins in January with rigorous written tests that officials take every week for three months, and then exams start in June.

“It would also surprise a lot of people to know how competitive we are as officials – we are 100 percent uber- competitive with one another, and just because we want to get it right,” Gleason says. “Not egotistically. We take terrific pride in what we do, and we don’t want to be the guy who made a questionable call.”

Speaking of questionable calls, Gleason is now willing to apply his jurisprudence to some of the more controversial elements of the game.

“Deflategate? It was a tempest in a teapot. As we learned this summer, referees bring in the game balls and we have our pumps and gauges and life’s great. I say now and I said then, why are officials even bothering to check balls? The reason was, back in the day, people were getting cute with balls and bringing in a balloon to kick. But practically speaking, we need to stop and scratch our heads and ask ourselves, ‘Does a quarterback want to throw a Nerf ball?’ Of course not,” Gleason says.

“And instant replays? If you look at what some conferences are doing with replay, it really is too much in my humble view. Even coaches are speaking up and saying replay is too much. Coaches make mistakes, players on the field make mistakes, and officials make mistakes,” Gleason says.

As long as there is football, there will be controversies over plays and calls. But for Gleason, the thing that endures are relationships, from his crew to the many coaches and players who he is proud to also call friends.

“I only have a few shirts left – I’ve given most of them away to guys who are learning the ropes. It’s not because I’m a great human being. There are no altruistic bones in my body. It’s totally selfish and self-centered,” he says. “It’s because I know when they’re reffing at UNH, I can get free tickets.”

Carol Robidoux is a freelance writer based in Manchester.

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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