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.

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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