Making the tough calls



by Luke Glaser

Michael Neel’s career as an official began when he was six years old, during playground kickball matches.

“I would always run the games,” Neel said.

Now, Neel’s resume boasts a little more than recess officiating. The UK health promotions senior was recently chosen to officiate Big Blue Madness and a Nov. 13 college football game for Campbellsville vs. West Virginia Tech.

Neel’s dream to be a professional sports official began in little league baseball, and from there he began work with the Kentucky High School Athletic Association.

“I like being a part of the game” he said, “but I certainly didn’t have an athletic future.”

For Neel, excellent officiating requires patience and humility.

“During games, I’m invisible,” Neel said.  “No one knows that I’m there.”

Neel watches every game differently than the average fan,  blocking out the crowd with eyes only for the players.

Michael Jordan once said that when he plays, he thinks about the fan seeing him play for the first and maybe only time. Neel said he always officiates with that in mind.

Nevertheless, no official escapes from a game without error, and Michael says that’s just a part of the game and the job.

“I am extremely confident in the calls that I make, but I’m willing to admit mistakes,” he said. “You need patience and calmness with coaches yelling in your face.”

Should conflict go too far, though, Neel is always prepared to take that last step. For Neel, the worst part of officiating is ejection, a tool he has invoked at times in his career.

Neel said his proudest moment was officiating the Big Blue Madness scrimmage, although, the job is not all glory under the lights of the court.

After endless hours of classes and testing, Neel travels up to 5,000 miles a year for the KHSAA, driving all over the state.

“You have to be prepared to travel one, maybe two hours for a game,” he said.

High school officials are assigned regions, but they often move around during the playoffs.

Michael Neel’s dream is to be an NFL or NBA basketball referee. Neel said he always sees the potential to improve the calling of the game and stressed continued improvement to potential officials.

“You will miss calls and you will know it,” Neel said. “But if you miss one, don’t miss it again.”

Aside from officiating, he wants to work in some facet of sports. He also wants to run his own officiating camp and plans to continue volunteering for the Special Olympics.