One of the easiest things anyone can do is criticize others.
That is especially true in the sports world. It seems that when fans purchase a ticket to a sporting event, they assume that the purchase price includes the right to criticize the officials.
Most area sports fans are familiar with the name Jerry Middleton.
I remember watching Middleton as a young official officiating a baseball game during the mid-’80s. He was calling balls and strikes behind the plate in a Sectional game between Richmond and Northeastern. Two things stood out to me. The first was the consistency of his strike zone. The second was his confident control of the game.
Middleton completed his 44th season officiating last week, and his consistency and confident control are still present. His career didn’t end officiating a high school game. His last game was officiating a professional playoff basketball game in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
Jerry Middleton started officiating in 1978. He is known and respected statewide for officiating baseball and football. He is known nationally for his work on the basketball court.
Most people who have seen him work might not be aware of why Middleton became an official in the first place. It was because of a suggestion made by another well-known official who also happened to be one of Middleton’s teachers in the Richmond school system.
Middletown explained, “I was in the eighth grade. I was watching a junior high basketball game in the old Boston gym, and I was yelling at the referees. Troy Ingram and Wayne VanSickle were the officials. Troy Ingram approached me after the game and said, ‘If you think you know so much, why don’t you start refereeing?’ I thought about it and took his advice. Ironically Troy Ingram and Wayne VanSickle became mentors to me, and I even had the honor of working on the same crew with them years later in the IHSAA football state finals.”
Middleton started by officiating Gray-Y football games and elementary basketball games until he was old enough to be licensed by the IHSAA. When Middleton graduated from Richmond High School in 1978, where he played varsity baseball, he pursued his goal of becoming a licensed official. He obtained his license to officiate high school games and he has been officiating a variety of sports at a variety of levels ever since. When Middleton started his journey, the IHSAA required that officials be high school graduates and at least 18 years old. He also had to have four licensed officials sign his application to vouch for him.
“When I started officiating football, I joined a crew of outstanding officials that included Ingram and VanSickle. I was also fortunate enough to work the IHSAA football state finals with them, and a couple of other crews in four different seasons. When I started, I usually worked with Paul Beatty, Cliff Dickman, Troy Ingram, and Wayne VanSickle. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Middleton is also the youngest person ever to officiate an Indiana basketball sectional. He was assigned to the Ben Davis sectional at age 21. His first varsity basketball game was at Jac-Cen-Del High School. He never forgot that they gave him that opportunity and has continued to work games for them for years.
The IHSAA now faces a shortage of officials. Middleton shared his opinion of reasons why, especially in basketball. “College basketball has taken a lot of good officials from the high school ranks because the money is there,” Middleton said. “I was paid $7.50 for my first JV game at Carmel. A varsity official could earn $12. Varsity games now pay $80 to $90, but college and professional games pay much more. The other thing that has driven officials away is the actions of some parents and kids. In some cases, they have gotten out of control. They even confront officials in the parking lot. Officials don’t want to deal with that, and they should not have to, and I think AAU basketball is a big factor.”
“When I started there was no AAU basketball,” Middleton said. “AAU players in many cases are uncontrollable in summer play so when the regular high school season rolls around, they are out of control, and we as officials must bring them back under control. Usually we can, but not always. That should be the coach’s responsibility but, in an age when some programs barely have enough players to field a varsity and JV team, if they alienate players or parents they just quit. That looks bad on the coach because they no longer have a full squad. Correcting this problem must go back to the household. It starts at home.”
Middleton talked about the different sports he has officiated. “Football is the most fun because you work as a crew,” Middleton said. “You meet up before the game and then go out after the game for a meal. It is like a Friday night out for the guys. I always tell people that football is the most fun. I enjoy baseball because I played baseball at Richmond, and I am a baseball guy. Basketball is a job. When we work a football game, we are too far from the stands to hear comments from the crowd. Baseball, for most regular-season games, does not draw large crowds. But in Indiana almost every fan thinks they are basketball experts who know more than the officials and the comments can be personal. I guess they think calling an official by his first name will have more of an impact. We are the enemy.”
“When I work college games it is not as bad,” Middleton said. “At the professional level I don’t get that. Players will ask me how I am and tell me I am their favorite official. That may be tongue in cheek, but the players and officials need each other and there is no adversarial relationship.”
“I do not have a problem with coaches,” Middleton said. “Early in my career fans may have watched a game and thought the officials and coaches were constantly at odds. We weren’t. We both had jobs to do. It was not unusual for Bill Harrell at Muncie Central, for example, win or lose, to stick his head into the officials’ dressing room after the game and say, ‘Guys, my wife fixed a pot of chili tonight, stop over and have a bowl with us.’ That would never happen today. Officials going to a coach’s house after a game would be deemed inappropriate.”
“In 1996, I started working college games, as well as continuing to do high school games, and my pay more than doubled.” Middleton said. “I was paid $175 per game. Today that same game could pay as much as $2,500. Later I started working minor league professional basketball games and the pay was $400-500 per game. I went that route and cut my high school games to 4 or 5 games per year. Respect from players at the professional level is never a problem. I am going to retire from basketball period at the end of the current pro basketball season. The years of officiating have taken its toll on my knees.”
“I am pursuing the possibility of being a supervisor of officials or an evaluator of officials at the professional level. I stopped doing football games after the 2007 season. I did work 12 baseball games last year simply because there was such a shortage I was trying to help.”
“I want to slow down so that I can spend more time with my family,” Middleton said. “I have three children who have all been very successful and Natasha, my wife of 32 years, has been understanding about my travel, but it is time to spend more time with them. Sometimes in the past, when I had an extended time between games Natasha would ask me if I had a game to do and if not if I could find one, but I think she was kidding. Now I am devoting most of my time to my job as assistant athletic director at Northeastern and working with in-school and out-of-school detention. That is rewarding to be able to help kids. I have had several former students tell me that I made a difference in their lives. To me, for them to tell me that is a big deal.”
Middleton has officiated baseball, basketball and football for decades, but his favorite sport is volleyball.
“I love volleyball,” Middleton said. “Girls volleyball is one of the purest team sports. One player can’t beat you. It truly is a team sport. Three players are involved in virtually every play,” he said.
Middleton served as the volleyball coach at Earlham College in the early 1990s. He coached for two years at Eaton High School in Ohio and served as the head volleyball coach at Northeastern during the 2013, 2014 and 2015 seasons. He admits it was a tough adjustment going from referee to coach.
“Volleyball is a game of momentum. One incorrect call or one no-call can change that momentum and allow a team to go on an 8-to-10-point run,” Middleton said. “As a coach who is also an official, I struggled with that.”
“My oldest daughter Sasha played college volleyball at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona,” Middleton said. “Now she is on the Phoenix police department. Natasha and I worry about that, but she loves it. My other daughter Alexi is a Purdue graduate who is now working on her master’s degree at North Carolina State. Our son Seth is a pilot. Natasha and I are very proud of them. They are our success stories. My only regret with my children is that because of my officiating I missed some of their school activities and that is time that cannot be made up. But back then that $40 to $50 each week helped with the costs of raising 3 small kids.”
The positive side of officiating is easy for Middleton to identify as he looks back on his career. “It was all the people I had a chance to meet. Officiating connected me with so many great people and a lifetime of memories and friendships. I loved my time as an official.”
“Most people don’t know that I used to be a race car driver during the summer months,” Middleton said. “That took me away from my family as well. I raced professionally in the ARCA series and SERVPRO was our primary sponsor. I raced at Daytona and Charlotte. I also did some road racing. 2003 was my last year on the racing circuit. I finished 17th in the final point standings. There are a lot of things that must go right, and you need sponsorship dollars. But I found that the other drivers will help you if they can.”
Middleton cited an example. “I was at Daytona one year and we were the last car to go out to attempt to qualify. We were a low-budget team and the wind had picked up and I was concerned. A guy tapped me on the shoulder, and when I turned around it was Richard Petty. I was in awe. He turned and yelled at Bobby and Donnie Allison to come over to give me some pointers on how to deal with the wind. They suggested that I hug the wall into the corners and then dive down two or three stories to pick up momentum and then go back up toward the wall to keep the wind from hitting me.
I did that and we only missed making the race by one one-thousandth of a second. Without their advice we would not have stood a chance of being competitive. Those three guys are legends, and they did not have to help me, they chose to help me, and that is common in auto racing. The good ol’ boys really are good ol’ boys.”
What’s next for Jerry Middleton
COVID negatively impacted high school sports, but it opened an unexpected door for Jerry Middleton.
“During the COVID era we made changes at Northeastern that were out of necessity,” Middleton said. “We had to limit attendance, so we started livestreaming events. Out of that came Knight Line Live. Now with my partner Rick Fletcher we do a weekly broadcast to highlight the week in Northeastern sports and we livestream Northeastern games in several sports. We are not professional broadcasters, but we are having fun and while we are only covering Northeastern, we are always fair to the opposing team. We select a player of the game from the winning team and that is not always a Northeastern athlete. The kids enjoy it, and, in many cases, it is the first time they have ever been interviewed and it is fun for us to meet so many great kids. We have been able to involve students in the productions. Gerry Keesling told me originally that we were going to start livesteaming during COVID, and that I would be doing the play by play because attendance at that time was parents only. I needed a color person and Rick Fletcher wanted to attend the games, and even offered to sweep the floor at haft time, just so he could get in the building. Gerry told Rick to forget his broom and be the color man on the livestreams. We joked that he went from custodian to color guy. Steve Luebbe set up and runs the computer system for us. None of us had prior experience. We learned on the fly and people loved it. We have expanded into pregame and postgame shows, and we make our own commercials. Then we decided to do a weekly show we call Knight Line Live to recap the week and bring in special guests. We enjoy doing it and it gives us a chance to promote kids. That will be Jerry Middleton going ahead. We have been able to expand our equipment with wireless cameras and other upgrades. Now we have students working on cameras and other things and that student involvement may lead to some of them pursuing jobs in the broadcasting industry. Anna Drake, one of our first student interns, is now a Ball State student and she is part of the broadcasts at Ball State.”
“I have always loved being involved in sports,” Middleton said. “I hope to continue that love affair for a long time.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 5 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.