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Open Season on Zebras

Image from The Onion Sports

If prime time sports were a new invention, as opposed to the end result of well over 100 years of recreational history, would the powers that be entrust management of the games to old men with whistles?

“I got a rope/ I got a tree/ Let’s hang the referee.” Overheard at a University of North Carolina basketball game, 1994

“The referee’s a wanker.” Traditional English football song.

It’s not a good time to be a referee. NBA ref Tim Donaghy fessed up to fixing basketball games and is currently spending his days making sure he doesn’t drop the soap. So far, it would appear that he’s the only bad apple in the NBA bunch, but a stunning percentage of on-line talk about the world’s best basketball league revolves around the quality of officiating, or lack of. The 2008 playoffs were marred when the Brent Barry of the San Antonio Spurs got clobbered taking a last second, and potentially game-winning, shot. The officials’ silence said no foul, and the Spurs lost the game and the series to the LA Lakers.

Zebras in the NFL have had a tough start to the season, too. In the first week of the season one of the League’s best-known refs, the increasingly buff Ed Hochuli, called an obvious Denver Broncos fourth quarter fumble as an incomplete forward pass. Blowing his whistle called the play dead, preventing the possibility of a video correction. Commendably, he instantly admitted and apologised for his mistake. Although he words rang hollow for fans of the San Diego Chargers, who went on to lose the game.

America doesn’t hold the monopoly on dreadful refereeing. German soccer whistleblower Robert Hoyzer has recently finished a 29-month stretch after being found to be at the heart of a match-fixing scandal.

Even allowing for honest mistakes, soccer is a sport where the referee can find himself 50 yards or more away from the action and horrendous, match-costing decisions are weekly occurrences. Perhaps the most astonishing refereeing moment in recent years took place in a game between Watford and Reading in the English Championship (the division below the Premiership) this September. In an utterly inexplicable decision, the referee awarded a goal after a shot was struck and the ball flew harmlessly wide of the goal.

No players reacted. The crowd didn’t cheer. No one could even work out what was happening until the referee stopped to explain. The phantom goal instantly became the ultimate example of refereeing ineptitude.

Well, what did you expect?

The very concept of refereeing or umpiring sports is flawed. The early days of football, from which all its myriad offshoots derive (even basketball, if you think about it), didn’t even have refs. In the event of a contentious moment the team captains would discuss the matter and arrive at a gentlemanly conclusion. When this proved to be an inefficient way of controlling the game, the referee, reluctantly, was introduced.

Think about a respected old gent monitoring a game between 19th century students and move forward roughly 150 years. Games are played between full time professionals (multi-millionaires, no less), in front of thousands of spectators and TV audiences of millions. Athletes are faster, stronger and, as professionalism dictates, more prone to cheating than their 19th century student counterparts. The referees, on the other hand, are still just old guys trying to keep up.

They don’t have a chance.

If prime time sports were a new invention, as opposed to the end result of well over 100 years of recreational history, would the powers that be entrust management of the games to old men with whistles? Unlikely. More likely they would instigate some type of tennis style Hawkeye technology, monitoring every movement to a matter of micro-metres. The facts of who did what and where the ball went would be indisputable. The decisions would be relayed to the players and audience by some kind of benign Big Brother-type sports dictatorship.

At the very least, the ability to correct obvious errors would be built into the games. There’s no logic in having one, two or even a bunch of guys screwing the whole thing up for the watching millions.

Instead, we’re left with sport’s bumbling, fumbling ‘human’ element. God bless ’em.

So despite every sports fan regularly lamenting some ref’s blindness (or for NBA or Bundesliga fans, actual cheating) the games can’t happen without them. And in this era of media saturation, the spotlight has shifted on them. Instant replay highlights their every mistake, and a universe of commentators, analysts, journalists, radio callers, bloggers and message boarders turn heaps of criticism into mountains. No one remembers the tough calls proved correct. Referees work in a diamond tough ‘what have you done for me lately?’ culture. The answer, inevitably, being a mistake that costs some team a win.

In these highly politicised times, at first glance the link between referees and government seems uncanny. Governments run countries. Refs run games. Everyone’s a critic the moment things go wrong. And yet, much like President Bush quietly riding out his last few weeks after spending eight years making a mess of things, there seems to be little will for the authorities to punish mistakes, no matter how great their magnitude.

In actuality, referees have it much harder. Bush’s approval rating may be veering towards absolute zero, but the facts can always be massaged into shape and he’ll always find a Fox News voice to back him up. ‘Yes, but at the time the evidence suggested that there were WMDs in Iraq’.

Referees have no defenders. The evidence of their errors isn’t on a 300-page official document. It’s there on a million TV screens. Supporters of the team that benefits from the mistakes will look the other way and cite honest ‘human error’ and a much-deserved stroke of good fortune. There are no spin-doctors explaining away the strange decisions. The evidence is there for all to see. There are no excuses.

And yet, in all the countless words of opinion on air, in print and on-line, the solutions to improving refereeing are toothless. Instant replay, as used in the NFL, cuts down mistakes, but couldn’t prevent errant Hochuli-style whistle blowing or the Seattle Seahawks being robbed in Superbowl XL. Pay the refs more money? What difference does it make? They make their decisions in fractions of seconds, based on what they see.

Would more money change that view, or in Donaghy or Hoyzer’s case, make them less susceptible to corruption? A common theme is the desire to bring more ex-players into refereeing. Only people who have played the game at the highest level can understand how it really works, they say. But why would someone who enjoyed the emotional and financial highs of playing professional sport want to become a member of the great unloved? No glory. No fun. No point.

Despite their endless moaning sports fans have to accept that until scientists invent all seeing robot rulebooks they’ll have to put up with inconsistent, frustrating and visually challenged referees. We should be grateful. Because in these politicised times, when every innocuous message board thread seems to eventually descend into a meaningless exchange of insults between left and right, at least the part of the world that follows sport can agree on one thing. The referee is, and always will be, a wanker.

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