Sports officiating is one of those jobs that evokes irrational contempt in the hearts and minds of good people like you and me. Referees are like politicians and lawyers and neuroanatomy professors; they just make everything worse, and everybody hates them.
Sports fans are usually an even-tempered, level-headed, ultra-rational bunch, but we tend to get a little edgy about what we think are bad calls on the part of officials. For some reason, fans expect absolute perfection from the referee (as long as it benefits their favorite team), and it’s completely unfair. There’s no other position on any field of play held to such a ludicrous standard. When Aaron Rodgers completes 69 percent of his passes, he goes to the Pro Bowl. Michael Jordan shot .497 from the field for his career, but Bulls fans didn’t mind. Hell, if some baseball guy gets on base half as often as he strikes out, they put him in Cooperstown. Yet, if the referee makes even single perceived mistake, we want his head on a pike.
It’s the same in all sports, too. Go down to a Dubuque Fighting Saints game some time (that’s hockey, for you Blackhawks fans). Wait for a skater from the home team to get sent off to the sin bin for anything short of felonious assault, and then listen to the crowd after the penalty’s announced. “We’ve got a rope! We’ve got a tree! All we need is a referee!”
Let me explicate that little poem for you. What the speaker means is that the referee has in some way slighted the home team through his ineptitude, and should now be hanged from the neck until dead. That’s right, lynch him. My favorite team has to skate a man down for two minutes because of this buffoon in a striped shirt, and he has thus surrendered his right to live.
Sounds reasonable, right?
It’s not easy being the guy in stripes, and I know that from experience. I spent two seasons as the on-court official for a city rec adult dodgeball league, and I felt the wrath of players and spectators when they thought I was anything less than perfect. The experience opened my eyes to the impossible task assigned to officials. It also opened my eyes to how important city rec adult dodgeball is to some people. There was more than one occasion when I had my head on a swivel as I walked out of that middle school gymnasium at the end of the night. Those people were completely insane. Needless to say, I had my head on a swivel on the court, too. I had to duck dodgeballs “accidentally” rifled at my face in nearly every game. Should referees have to fear malicious attacks from the competitors in the game?
Has it really come to that?
You bet it has.
Remember the Texas high school football ref who got lit up by a couple of D-backs in September? You saw the video, and you enjoyed it as much as I did. Those kids jacked up that official because their coach thought he made some bad calls. The coach’s attorney played the race card after the fact, because that’s what we do in America, and he denied that the two players were explicitly instructed to assault the referee (I know, he was technically the umpire, but I’m not really comfortable with that word’s connotation). That wasn’t the first time it happened, either. A similar on-field targeting of a high school football official occurred in 2008, unsurprisingly also in Texas.
But the zebras don’t just have to fear for their lives out there, they also have to fear for their livelihoods, at least at the highest levels of competition. The ACC (that’s the Atlantic Coast Conference, not the Alumni Campus Center) suspended an entire officiating crew after the insane finish to the Miami-Duke game this past weekend. Did you see that play? I would have turned my palms to the sky and said “Do-over?” if I was on that crew. Those poor bastards in D-I and pro sports have it the worst. They’re constantly undermined by litigious replay procedures and the eye in the sky. Replay only fuels the fans’ expectation of perfection, and when they don’t understand what’s reviewable and what isn’t, they get angry. I’d like to see replay eliminated from all sports. The game is played by humans, let humans officiate it.
I can live with imperfection.