December, 1975: a whiskey bottle sails through the air. It’s briefly silhouetted against the gray backdrop of winter sky above Bloomington, Minnesota before crashing down on the head of Armen Terzian, opening a bloody gash on his forehead and knocking him unconscious. What could have precipitated such a vile act? Was this a mugging? Revenge? Bad luck?
In a way, Terzian’s fate was all of these, and more. He was, after all, an NFL referee. Moments earlier, Terzian (and the rest of the officiating crew) had failed to call an offensive interference penalty on Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson, who had just caught what would become the famous “Hail Mary” pass from Roger Staubach, giving the Cowboys the lead in the final seconds of their divisional playoff game against the home team, the Minnesota Vikings. Convinced that Pearson had illegally pushed his defender out of the way to make the catch, frustrated fans pelted the field with debris. Among the barrage was the fated bottle. Battered, Terzian was helped off the field. Seconds later, time expired; the Cowboys won the game.
More than 30 years later, little has changed in the public’s estimation of the officials. (For Vikings fans, even less has changed in their opinion of Terzian and his officiating crew.) Although heightened security in stadiums has prevented a repeat of the whiskey bottle attack, referees remain the target of fan venom and vitriol in virtually every sport. Like characters in a morality play, referees are almost reflexively received by fans with a combination of boos, taunts, profanity, and, on occasion, worse. The courtesies of good sportsmanship, it would seem, extend only to the players themselves. The refs are fair game for all of us.
Still, these much maligned men and women perform a variety of vital functions in the world of sports—and beyond. Put simply, if it weren’t for them, sports would not exist. Without rules, and the people who enforce them, what we understand as sport—a contest of regulated participants determined by conventions—would degenerate into a mere game, where the participants and rules are much freer and more open. Referees are in place, then, to ensure ostensibly objective judgment of the performance in question, giving the contest the weight of legitimacy that would not otherwise be possible if it were left to the players themselves to govern their own behavior. There’s a very good reason, after all, why they’re called “officials”. And, still, we hate them for it.
But perhaps “hate” is too strong a word. For many sports fans, the referees are a convenient lightning rod, positioned to receive misplaced frustration that stems more directly from the fans’ team’s poor performance. When confronted with the failure of one’s athletic idols, it’s often preferable to place blame elsewhere. As a permanent and easily accessible scapegoat, then, the referee is actually performing a valuable service for fans, allowing them to preserve the cherished illusion that their team, despite losing, would have actually won if it weren’t for outside interference and incompetence on the part of the officials.
In addition, it is the referee who is responsible for introducing the element of drama into a sporting contest. Whether deeply involved in the ebb and flow of the game (as in basketball or baseball) or more detached from it (as in tennis or cricket), the referees assure spectator interest by virtue of their presence alone. This is because a sport measures its participants not only against their opponents, but also against the limitations of prescribed regulation. Plenty of people can knock someone down, throw a ball through a hoop, or catch a pass. The question is, can they do it while obeying the governing principles of the sport? The rules are what drive the development of strategies, encourage specialized skills, and condition the heart-racing action that attracts so many to sports in the first place. As the time keepers, the boundary markers, and the possession granters, the refs make sure these rules are obeyed. To put it simply, they are the law.
As such, they fulfill still another, more profound role, one which has consequences far greater than a team’s win-loss record. As the ones responsible for rule enforcement, the referees are physical manifestations of discipline and power, actors whose penalizing reinforces a larger sense of law and punishment for the rest of us. To better see how this might be so, it’s helpful to invoke the work of theorist Michel Foucault. In his book, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault describes a shift in the popular conception of discipline from an external notion to a more internalized understanding. To illustrate the case, he discusses the early history of corporal punishment as a very public event, where criminals would be tortured or otherwise castigated in a ritualistic and public display. The considerable audiences that attended these floggings, hangings, beheadings, and so forth, were reminded of the threat of authorities from without (and above) should they ever be tempted to break the rule of law.
In Foucault’s estimation, this external notion of punishment continued until the 18th century, when the beginnings of the modern sense of discipline began to take shape. One way he elaborates this shift is through the metaphor of architecture. He describes a building, designed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, known as the “Panopticon”, which consists of a circular arrangement of cells with a central guard tower in the middle. From the vantage point of the tower, one can observe each cell’s occupant, but no one in a cell can see the tower. As a result, the person has no idea when they are being observed or not.
Key to Foucault’s point is not that these buildings began cropping up all over the place, but that its design represented a new way of internalizing the threat of discipline from those in power, namely through the act of looking: “the Panopticon…is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology”. The tower, with its ever-present threat of observation, represented a way of internalizing the inevitability of discipline for those who no longer needed graphic displays of punitive power. Instead, people came to restrain their behavior in fear that they, too, might be seen doing something wrong. The obvious example is the person who refuses to speed, for fear of a ticket, even if no police car is behind them.
The Panopticon, then, represented a new efficiency in the way order came to be enforced. Rather than trotting out the whole village to a gory show, residents of the growing towns and cities came to see themselves as subject to authority’s gaze: “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” The power of authority was instilled as an ingrained, abstract, though no less real, idea, rather than a specific set of displays. These days, we learn to behave not by watching people suffer punishment, but through a variety of cues that inform us of the consequences if someone in power should see us doing wrong. In a metaphorical sense, we are all now inmates in the Panopticon. But what keeps us there?
We get notions of power and punishment from a variety of places: school, church, family, McGruff the Crime Dog, and, yes, sports. Referees, by penalizing athletes who step outside the boundaries of regulation, reinforce the governing dynamic of the application of power in society more generally. Their justice is swift and irrevocable. Though a few sports offer specialized reviews of close calls, those decisions that are overturned are done not by coaches, players, or fans, but by other, more specialized referees. With the presence of replay officials, we come to see that it’s not just one layer of discipline that’s being administered, but rather a series of concentric disciplines to which the players are subjected.
Among these levels, the fans too, take their place. If we take Foucault’s emphasis on the gaze as an expression of power, with the central authority’s ability to cast its eye without mitigation or warning, we can identify a variety of acts of looking-as-power when applied to the participants on the field, track, court, or pitch. First, the on-field referees dispatch punishment if they see players in violation of the rules. On occasion, there are replay officials who enforce a secondary level of observation off the field. Beyond this, the fans themselves adopt a position that mimics that of the officials.
Though unable to actually enforce the rules, fans are outraged when their gaze fails to coincide with that of the referees. This is because a fan’s experience of watching the game, either in person or through the dozens of television cameras, is often that of a referee’s—measuring a player’s action against the letter of the law. If a player is thought to be in violation (like Drew Pearson) and nothing is done (as Terzian refused to act), anger (and flying whiskey bottles) can be a likely result. The reverse is also true, as when a referee disciplines a player when no fault exists in the fan’s eyes.
From this interaction, finally, emerges the most logical reason for why fans hate refs. Namely, it’s a lack of accordance between their punitive gaze and that of the referees. Through all of this, a clear sense of discipline, however contested by protesting (though, ultimately, powerless) fans, players, and coaches, emerges. The players, to return to Foucault, are, much like us, really so many inmates in the metaphorical Panopticon that is constructed in part by sports and their officials. Not only are they subject to the refs’ authority, as well as the fans’ secondary interpretations of the same, but they are also circumscribed by the coaches, the owners, league commissioners, and corporate sponsors. That’s not to say that players suffer unduly, though, or even to question the fairness of the dynamic. For Foucault, all of that’s beside the point. What really matters is the way in which sports, through its institution of officiating, helps us to internalize the application of authority and the consequences of rule-breaking.
Doubtless, this will be of small comfort to the men and women who soldier out onto the field of play, only to be subjected to insults about their insight and crude insinuations about their familial relations. That they play an integral role in strengthening the bulwarks of social order may, however, give some fans pause before hurling that next epithet or bottle. Still, for those who might take issue with the power dynamic acted out on the field and projected into our living rooms, all of this might really give them something to shout about.