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It's Rough, Being a Ref: Perhaps Only Parking Enforcement Garners Comparable Abuse

As ref, I began to pass my time on the court by rating the insults hurled in my direction. The predictable epithets earned one star. Some of the more unique combinations of verbs, idioms, and profanity, however, would earn higher marks.

Growing up, I became a connoisseur of bad summer jobs. I weed-whacked fairways for a golf course in Seguin, Texas, one that featured precious few oak trees to shade me from the sun’s brutality and ease the stinging cuts of the chemically fertilized slivers of grass that my gas-powered machine kicked up at all angles. Still, that seemed a veritable heaven when, later, I dashed around in a bow tie, delivering clean plates to the insatiable patrons of a Golden Corral restaurant, only to be rewarded with a fistful of coins that they would shake loose from their sweat-soaked, meaty palms.

Of all my terrible summer jobs, though, intramural official was likely the worst. I saw the ad in the school paper for basketball referees. Needing the spare cash, I thought it would be a great way to enjoy the sport, get paid, and participate in some good-natured competition. Those presumptions were dashed after my second trip down the court, when a player picked up his pivot foot from the post, took three steps in the paint, proceeded to clang his own brand of sky hook off the top of the backboard, and then hurl the rebound at my head when I had the temerity to call traveling. It got worse from there.

As the season wore on, I began to pass my time on the court by rating the insults hurled in my direction. The predictable epithets earned one star. Some of the more unique combinations of verbs, idioms, and profanity, however, would earn higher marks. When the playoffs rolled around, I could have assembled my own all-star team of abusers. None could play the game very well, but they could unleash a torrent of degradation the way Allen Iverson could execute a crossover. It was a gift, it seemed.

I thought back to that job when, recently, NBA official Joe DeRosa took the uncharacteristic step of sticking up for himself. At the game two halftime of the Orlando Magic -- Boston Celtics series, DeRosa was confronted by a screaming fan who stood behind the scorer’s table. In response, the referee removed the game ball from under his arm and threw it at the fan, who was able to adjust his wild gesticulations quickly enough to catch the ball and hurl it back. It was a brief exchange that happened off-camera during a break in the game. Nevertheless, for his actions DeRosa was suspended for a game by the league.

The most disappointing aspect of the video to me, however, was that the ball didn’t careen off the offender’s rotund face, wrinkle his dress shirt (unbuttoned to mid-chest), and scuff up his store-bought tan. In that moment, with that small gesture, DeRosa made a bid to reclaim the dignity of any official who’s had to sit there and “take it” from a parent, player, coach, or fan. Few other jobs (other than parking enforcement) place one so efficiently in verbal harm’s way. It’s become expected, encouraged even, to treat the refs as one might a cell phone, car, or other appliance that has ceased to function as intended. If it can’t be kicked or beaten back into shape, then it must be yelled at.

Referees, though, hated as they may be, provide a valuable service. Their presence in any sport is the stamp of legitimacy. It’s no accident, after all, that we call them “officials”. Without them, sports would simply become an adult version of recess, rather than the dramatic, billion-dollar spectacles they are today. Referees also provide more subtle, yet equally important, services for society at large, the likes of which I’ve mentioned in a previous installment of this column, Discipline and Punish: The Official Functions (7 February 2008). It would seem their most important job, however, is that of public lightning rod, absorbing bolts of furious energy that are hurled at them from every direction.

We refs try to help ourselves, though, really we do. All manner of technology has been instituted to try to mitigate a referee’s influence on a game. From instant replay videos to lasers, a variety of methods have been implemented in an attempt to place a ref’s uncertain decision-making into the safer hands of technology. For all these strategies, though, no sport has yet to produce an entirely inhuman governing device.

If such a refbot ever did come to pass, sports would truly be the poorer for it. Yelling at the ref is as much a part of the viewing experience as cheering for the home team. It’s part of what makes up the larger spectacle of any sporting event. It would hardly be newsworthy if Serena Williams threatened to shove a tennis ball down a computer’s throat. Yelling at a real live line judge makes for far more compelling controversy.

Even if it is futile (how many officials have changed their call after being harangued for it?), that shouting is everything. So much of civil society is predicated on our biting our tongues and suppressing our frustration, holding back from what we really, truly want to say to our fellow human beings. Referees, however, don’t really count as fellow human beings. In the way that some use online commenting as a vehicle for venting pent up rage at a two-dimensional avatar or screen name, refs provide us with ready, passive targets for our own primal screams.

Of course, that’s small comfort to the Joe DeRosas of the world who generally, as I did, come to officiating as enthusiasts of the sport. The job involves more than merely calling the games, though. While “human punching bag” may not be officially in the job description, DeRosa’s toss was the equivalent of the bag punching back. It was a reminder of the refs’ humanity which, at the end of the day, is a good thing. We should never forget that such humanity -- flawed, limited, and subject to change -- is the governing authority to which we entrust the outcome of our contests. In that way, every game will present us with moments of uncertainty and inconsistency.

That’s not to say that some referees are better than others, or that they shouldn’t try their utmost to judge impartially and equally. Absolute objectivity, though, is an undesirable fallacy.

What the refs present us with instead is, quite often, some small demonstration of perceived inconstancy and injustice that accurately reflects the workings of our larger universe. Unlike the universe, though, they’re far easier to yell at. As such, they do us a favor: they give us a target for our outrage and grant us the illusion that such expression might, in some way, be useful. The wider world, of course, will do no such thing.

Perhaps no greater example of this came when, recently, umpire Jim Joyce blatantly missed a call and ruled Cleveland Indian Jason Donald safe at first. Joyce’s error ruined Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga’s perfect game in the final out, a mistake that the umpire immediately and publically admitted. Galarraga graciously forgave the error, and it seems that many have followed the pitcher’s lead. At least, Joyce’s forthcoming apology denied additional fuel to the brewing outrage. In essence, Joyce underscored his humanity (even tearing up during the following game) for the rest of us -- a needed reminder that, generally, was well-received.

This claim to humanity, though, is not to say that some referees are better than others, or that they shouldn’t try their utmost to judge impartially and equally. The referees may pretend to ignore us, but the specter of injustice truly does. It may be for the best. While a basketball tossed at us may be unpleasant, the universe is capable of bringing about far worse fates.

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