On the Nature of Sports Officiating and Nonchalant ARC Referees

When little Johnny grows up, chances are he wouldn’t mind being a professional athlete or professional musician, or maybe even a food tester/critic. On the opposite side of that spectrum is life as a referee, probably one of the most thankless jobs out there.

No matter what call is made, one side is going to be angry at the call. No matter how alert and adept they are at positioning for the best possible sightlines, referees will be humans and miss some calls.

If you go to a UCI basketball game, you’ll see Eater Nation jeering or booing at that night’s officials as much —  if not more than — fans disparaging the opposing team. The UCI band, never short on comical posters, has ones just for the ref: “Go Back to Foot Locker” with the shoe company’s logo, and “Big West Refs are Blind” with the letters arranged like a sight test, are two of my favorites. In any case, Big West refereeing is a whole other topic for another day.

It is only natural for fans to be riled up when their team is wronged by the officials — especially when it’s in an important playoff game. Umpires Tim McClelland and Dale Scott admitted to making three incorrect calls in Game 4 of the ALCS between the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (does anyone else realize that the Angels are now The City of Angels Angels? I digress). The repeated calls for instant replay made the media rounds once again, and anti-socials around the world pined for all officials to be replaced with machine robots, much like the plight of grocery store cashiers and bag boys.

To clarify, the point of this edition of the Payoff Pitch is not to pity or lament referees. Extensive protection plans are in place in all leagues. Rasheed Wallace of the Boston Celtics was recently just fined a whopping $35,000 for telling reporters that “[The officials] don’t like tough defense on [Dirk Nowitzki], so, of course, I get a whole lot of [expletive] calls,” and “there was so many bogus [calls]…” Many other times, coaches will tell reporters they cannot comment on the referees or they will get fined.

As a former youth league basketball referee, I am not raising issue with any of the above topics. They are all decent conversation pieces, and all things that are more or less permanent components of the sporting world. I know first- hand what it is like to call a reaching foul with five seconds left in a tie game and have the player make both free throws in what would be the final score. Never mind the fact that it was a 4th and 5th grade girls’ game — I was lambasted by angry parents immediately afterwards for “taking the game out of their hands”.

Another time, a bully of a 6th grader kept discretely elbowing other players away from the ball. Three different boys crumpled to the ground without any call from me or my partner, leading to an enraged dad charging on to the court and shouting in our face that he was holding any injuries accountable on us (like the bully was not at all responsible). Nonetheless, at the end of the day, I could honestly say I enjoyed my job. I loved the game of basketball, and loved being around it. Even as a referee, I got an adrenaline rush from just being a part of games that went down to the wire.

What I am raising issue with however, is another type of referee: the lifeless and lackluster ones that obviously do not want to be there, only collecting a paycheck. For an example, just go check out some of the ARC referees currently hired for the winter intramural season. These guys are trailing way behind the play, raising their hand on foul calls like they don’t want to be called on in class, and generally lacking any signs of authority or crispness. I understand if you didn’t quite get the best view on an out-of-bounds ball, but still make a firm call in one direction or another! Wrong calls on both sides is better than being swayed by what the players think. Everyone loves a dramatic offensive charging call or the full-of-comedic-potential defensive block foul. This is not the time to be “too cool” and undramatic.

It’s one thing to miss calls once in a while — I don’t claim to be the best ref myself. All I ask is you show interest in the game and to try your best. If you dislike the job so much that you just want to get each game over with so you can go home, just quit refereeing. There are many other jobs out there that will receive more thanks and praises for what you do. And it’s not like refereeing at the ARC brings in the big bucks. If you don’t love the sport or dislike being assertive in your actions — don’t officiate.