Leonard Masao, 35, can recall with great clarity the day that the principal of his primary school in Madidi village in Mabopane, northwest of Pretoria, addressed the entire school. “He stood in the assembly and he called me up and he asked all of them, ‘Do we get male chefs?’ And obviously the answer was yes. ‘Will we get male nurses if we look around?’ ‘Oh yes, yes.’ ‘Then why can’t we have male netball players?’” Masao tells the story almost 30 years later.
It was a pivotal moment in his young life, and one that ultimately set him on a path that’s taken him to the top of the sport in South Africa – not as a player anymore, but rather as an umpire. Back then, Masao was the only male netball player at his school.
“It was a taboo, a guy playing netball, and everybody wants to see me and obviously I’m not feeling comfortable,” he recalls. In fact, before that memorable assembly he had informed his principal he was planning to quit the sport because his fellow pupils were making fun of him.
As he progressed through school, male netball players became more commonplace and Masao developed a thick skin – something that would stand him in good stead as an umpire many years later.
“I learnt that when you have something special people don’t understand, so you need to be very good at it. And you need something else that you can be good at, like academics. If your strength is academics and you excel in sport, that will always work in your favour. People will become more accepting.”
His aptitude for academics has persisted and Masao is now completing a PhD in educational psychology while teaching full-time at Prestige College, a private combined school in Hammanskraal, Pretoria.
Though he played netball at provincial level, he was constantly struck down by injury and concluded that he would not continue as a player. Along the way, he’d discovered a talent for officiating, which is the avenue he pursued to be able to remain involved in the game.
“I met a couple of ladies who introduced me to umpiring and I didn’t like it at first, but then they took me right through. I think they saw my potential. I got my first grading as an umpire in 2009 or 2010 at the Under-19 championships and that was the start of everything.
“It opened doors to a lot of new possibilities. I could see it was actually nice out there. There are injuries but they are less. And one thing that I liked about umpiring is that it boosted my confidence a lot because you have to be in charge, you must be present. There are a lot of things you have to work on, but after that everything just fell into place.”
Climbing the ranks
Masao steadily worked his way up the umpiring structures and is currently South Africa’s highest-ranked male umpire. He holds the title of international talent identified umpire (ITID) from World Netball, which means he can officiate international matches. There’s just one more step to reaching the top level of officiating – the international umpires’ award (IUA) – where he’d become a regular at major international tournaments.
“When World Netball wants to appoint umpires, it only looks at the ITIDs and the IUAs and obviously the strength of the competition. Something like the Commonwealth Games is only for the IUAs because you want your top-ranked umpires. But with qualifiers, Test matches and other small tournaments it will obviously consider the ITIDs,” he explains.
Masao umpired his first international matches in 2018, initially in Africa and then further afield in the United Kingdom. While the Covid pandemic has slowed his progress in terms of reaching the highest ranking possible, he’s positive that promotion is not too far away. “This is my fourth year as an ITID so I’m crossing fingers. This year it must happen,” he says.
Once that step is taken, Masao’s next major goal will be to officiate at the Commonwealth Games, World Cup and eventually the Olympic Games, should netball achieve its goal of being included in the global showpiece.
Masao is always aware of the fact that he’s in the minority in a sport dominated by women. “I’ve been in tournaments where I’m the only male umpire, and you must understand in the beginning you would get a room for all the umpires. It’s not male umpire or female umpire, it’s an umpire’s room so we share. Obviously there are some things that are private and personal – you cannot just take off your underwear in front of everyone, you quickly run to the bathroom,” he quips.
“I have enjoyed every moment with the females that I worked with and there are more males that have started coming in. We love the sport so we just want to be involved.”
Fit and proper
Masao believes a thick skin is one of many attributes needed to excel as a netball umpire. “You must be open to criticism because not all spectators will like you, not all coaches will like you,” he says, noting that each match is analysed and detailed feedback given by various supervisors. Coaches are also allowed to send video clips to umpires and request explanations on their interpretation of the rules.
“And you must have fitness, without a doubt. There’s no coach that wants an umpire that cannot sprint to the goal end, so fitness is number one. That is why with different gradings you get a different level of fitness that an umpire must reach. It’s also quite important to have good mental health. There’s a lot of psychology that goes into it, so you need to invest in a sports psychologist that you visit now and again.”
This mental aspect was put to the test when Masao lost his greatest supporter – his mother – shortly before having to umpire one of the biggest matches on the local calendar: the final of last year’s Telkom Netball League (TNL). “That was the most difficult time. She had cancer and we buried her a day before my birthday, and I think a month from there I had to umpire the TNL finals.
“That was the point for me where I thought long and hard, saying what do I do? Do I withdraw? What if I don’t get this opportunity again? Is it a test?” He took it as a test to see how strong he could be and how hard he could push himself, but he had good support. “I’ve got my friends that are really very supportive and my mentors.”
Masao admits that he still feels slightly jittery before taking to the court, but he’s discovered ways around that. “I have butterflies. I learnt not to get nervous and it’s not easy, but butterflies show that you appreciate the opportunity that you have.
“When you umpire senior players, they are a bit more intimidating because they have played internationally. And that’s where you need to have your composure, show them that you know what you are talking about. I do a lot of self-talking before the match and I pray a lot, because you need to be grateful for every moment that you are able to run or to move.”
A reason to be
This sense of gratitude is a driving force for Masao. “There were moments where I wanted to stop and then I realised I’m the luckiest person. I’ve travelled, I’ve made friends around the country and around the world, so that is special to me.
“Number two, it teaches you discipline. You will be amazed at some of the skills that you learn from your umpiring that you apply in your everyday life.
“And you never know the role that you play in other people’s lives. They look up to you for whatever … strength, motivation. You are a role model. So you actually go over and beyond your netball calling in that way of motivating other people.”
So, what would that young boy in assembly all those years ago have to say to the successful, driven role model Masao is today? “Well done for not stopping believing in yourself. Because I think children these days, irrespective of the environment and what they are exposed to, most of them lack confidence.
“And confidence is something that you can work on. You can grow. You grow it with every experience. I don’t regret going through each and every experience because that grew my confidence and I think it made me a better person.”