The Wilful Ignorance in Berating Refs

No matter how bad a call may seem, the officials are definitely not out to get your favorite team. So why do we feel the need to berate them?

If you’re like me, and watch sports with your phone out, your Twitter feed probably looks like this on a nightly basis:

No matter what team or sport you follow, you’ll unquestionably come across this behaviour (and maybe even participate in it yourself) at some point. For some reason, fans everywhere think it’s appropriate to diminish and demean the men and women responsible for enforcing rules on the field of play.

And look, I get it. Refs makes mistakes. Sometimes awful ones. They’re an easy target, as they don’t have the name recognition of the game’s stars, and it’s easier to hurl insults at someone when you group them as a bogeyman. But to imply that the officials calling games have it out for one team? Do you really know how much they would be risking on a petty grudge if this were the case? This absurd, and often abusive commentary from fans has been around for decades with fans throwing out old hackneyed insults at the officials like it just came with the territory when they bought a ticket. But this behavior isn’t even endemic to professional games.

The image we can all conjure up in our minds of the dad that’s trying way too hard and screaming at the umpire even though his kid couldn’t seem to care less about the outcome of the at-bat? That is a character trope rooted in truth to the saddest degree. This pervasive cultural habit of heckling the officials takes no prisoners. No game is sacred, and no subject is off limits.

In my 3 years of officiating intramural games and developing intramural officials at the college level, one thing has become very apparent: there is no game with stakes low enough for its officials to avoid some onslaught of heckling from crazed fans and competitors. I have seen this fact tested time and time again. Maybe it’s just the nature of competition, but I think we have good reason to believe this is evident of a cultural phenomenon that’s tangible consequences are only starting to become completely clear.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, only 20% of officials return for a 3rd year of officiating, and as one can imagine, this has led to a serious shortage in high school officials throughout the country. Across the board, former referees cite abuse (both verbal and physical), and low pay as their reasons for not coming back. It doesn’t take a ton of old-fashioned Googling to find a disturbing amount of stories of officials being threatened or otherwise abused to the point of the court system being involved. It really is that serious. Many have found that the stress and obligation on their part to be prepared for working games at the high school level just isn’t worth the 30–50 dollars a game they’re making, and I can’t say that I blame them. Whether it’s that the fans doing the berating don’t understand its impact on officials, or that they just don’t really care because they see it as part of the bigger picture of being a fan, it’s gotta stop.

Infographic and Data courtesy of NASO 2017 Data Highlights

And over half of the roughly 12,000 officials, ranging from the youth level to professional, asked by the National Association of Sports officials have said that sportsmanship is getting worse, which only seems to offer an even bleaker picture of what’s to come. But what they’ve also said, and reaffirming my earlier hunch that what we are seeing in sports is moreso a widespread cultural phenomenon than just a byproduct of the heat of competition, is that they felt the fans and parents were responsible for more of these problems than the players themselves. Surely if it were just the nature of competition that lead us as a society to get on the officials the way we are, the players would be to blame right? Who has more at stake than them?

Those surveyed attributed almost 60% of the problems with sportsmanship to either fans or parents, who for all intents and purposes are fans in their own right. So why is it that we feel not only that we have the right to, but the NEED, to insert ourselves in the game as fans?

I’ll posit that at least part of the reason that this is the case is because the general sportsgoing population may not have the best conception of what it takes to become an official at a given level, and in turn just default to assuming they are underqualified. While it may not take much to become an official at the youth recreational level aside from a working knowledge of the game and tools to keep the game safe and fun for the participants, these less experienced officials are the ones put on games with the lowest stakes. An assigner/league manager just has to have some faith in you, and it just makes sense. Everyone needs to cut their teeth somewhere.

To officiate a game at a youth competitive or adult recreational level, one will almost certainly need, or be highly encouraged to get, a state high school license to officiate. This comes with a kickass patch for the shoulder of your stripes, and that’s usually enough to instill the baseline amount of respect into both the competitors and any potential fans. To become registered at a high school level, using the state of Illinois with basketball as an example, you need to complete a thorough rules quiz, attend at least one clinic, and pay a ~50 dollar fee (this is roughly what they make for working a whole game). Keep in mind, this is for the baseline recognition, it would take you years of success as a new official at a junior varsity level to actually get promoted to a point where an assigner would give you a full-fledged varsity game to work (or more than that for high profile leagues or tournaments). So there’s that.

As for college, it takes a moderate amount of toiling away at elite high school level games and earning the respect of other local officials and assigners in the hopes that you can earn a spot in one of the more prestigious officiating camps around the country where hopefully someone notable from a college conference would notice you and contract you to work games at likely the D3 level. From there you can call it a day and work under the constant scrutiny of multiple evaluators for each game, you know, aside from players and fans, these are folks who are paid to make sure you don’t, for lack of a better term, FUCK IT ALL UP. Or, you could work your way up to become a D1 official through a similar, yet exponentially harder process of clinics, experience and a little bit of luck. There are other ways to go about it, like anything else, but this is a pretty typical snapshot of the come-up for an official.

This sounds a lot like the process a high-level player goes through, does it not?

Look, good officials are not seeking anyone’s praise, let alone pity. It just doesn’t mesh with the job description. At any level, good officials minimize their impact on the game, directing it to play out its natural course, while calling violations impartially and accurately along the way to ensure that competitive integrity and player safety aren’t compromised. Aside from validating scoring plays, that’s what coaches, fans, and players expect from an official. It isn’t about praise from fans and players, it is about having the respect, both for individual officials themselves and for officiating as a needed skill, and at the end of the day, that’s what is supposed to make them exempt from anything past a tolerable level of heckling.

No official whose ever had a decent mentor in the field got into it without understanding they would be on the receiving end of, to put it lightly, uncomfortable criticisms. Even officiating the low-level college events that I do personally, I expect to be held to a high standard, and I’d feel comfortable speaking for the officiating community as a whole in saying that. Yes, it’s threats on people’s lives and livelihoods that clearly cross the line and aren’t necessarily reflective of fan behavior toward officials as a whole (yet are still all too common), but there is a lot of gray area between this behavior and the kind of off-handed remarks of frustration that officials can be reasonably expected to tolerate that goes largely uncontested by society. This is the area of particular interest to me.

Time for a little case example.

Stay with me here. In 2008, Will Ferrell starred in a film I have no shame in calling a masterpiece. Although critics would disagree (to the tune of a 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), I think Semi-Pro was both ahead of its time, and maybe even rife with insightful social commentary…

Okay that might be a little much, but the film has one scene that I think does do a great job of pointing out the absurdity of player/fan-referee interactions that we have become to see as standard, or at least shrug off as not worthy of intervention.

“What did I say?” Jackie Moon bellows after being notified of his ejection… on the heels of him telling the official to “S his C”, and threatening to kill his family. Now I understand this is a parody, but in a “squint your eyes and turn your head” kind of way, it appears as if director Ken Alterman is actually kind of holding a light up to how weird and unfounded our sense of entitlement is when it comes to interacting with officials. On a more serious note, this is the kind of gray area verbal shitslinging that resides between the two extremes of referee heckling that needs the most cleaning up. Whether this had been said by a fan or a player, consider this: IN WHAT OTHER CAPACITY MIGHT IT BE OKAY TO TELL SOMEONE DOING THEIR JOB, WELL OR OTHERWISE, TO S YOUR C!

It’s easy to think that on-site abuse is the bulk of what officials have to deal with, but for higher-level officials who’s games have consistently large crowds, the emergence of sports media in the online space has lead to these often unfounded criticisms being etched in stone and wrapped in a more sophisticated package.

Hypothetically speaking of course, a tweet like, oh I don’t know I’m just spitballing here, “fuck you Joey Crawford! That’s no technical foul!” is relatively benign and nothing for officials to get up in arms about. But, starting in March 2015 when the NBA began releasing official Last Two Minute Reports detailing all calls, missed or correct, in the last two minutes of close games, opinionated fans and bloggers got a false layer of legitimacy to their online criticism.

The problem with Last Two Minute reports isn’t that they hold officials accountable. That was the goal in rolling them out, and they do that and then some. And that’s fine. No. That’s necessary.

The problem with Last Two Minute reports is that they encourage fans to make something of calls taken away from the context of the game, and further opens the door for officials to be used as the scapegoat by giving fans a quasi-legitimate place to point the finger. The fact of the matter is, the NBA acknowledging incorrect calls yet still giving games to poor officials does little to satisfy the fans on the wrong end of the call, but it does ensure that one or two choice plays dominate the conversation surrounding these close games. You know, there is a lot of truth to the saying “one play never wins or loses you a game”, even though uttering it in the presence of a fan who’s team has just lost after a blown call is on the shortlist of certified fighting words.

As fans, a better working knowledge of how officials become NBA officials, and how the NBA finds officials and ensures (or doesn’t ensure) that they are of the highest quality will go a long way in forcing the hand of the NBA to up their officiating standard. That what’s best for both the game, and officiating as a craft.

As for the heckling at the more recreational levels, just stop. If you want elite refs, pony up the extra money to get them. Until then, put yourself in the shoes of someone with one of the most thankless jobs on Earth, and if you think you can do it better, do it. We need you.

Parker Goss is a senior correspondent for Grandstand Central, where he writes about gambling, gaming, and fan culture. You can follow him here.

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