When I was a kid, I wanted to be an umpire or a referee (or, worst-case scenario, a game-show host). The reasons seem obvious, looking back. I wore thick glasses and was the shortest kid in class. There wasn't much power in that. And being an umpire, a referee, an official, a linesman ... well, in those days, those were just about the most empowering jobs I could think of.
Imagine: Your word was law. You made the final decisions. Safe or out. Block or charge. Touchdown or fourth down. And there was no appeals process back then. If someone disagreed too vehemently, you would just toss him out of the game or slap him with a technical or throw a yellow flag or hold up a red card or point to the penalty box. John McEnroe could yell and curse all he wanted, but he couldn't change the call. The only thing more powerful than being an official was being a comic-book superhero—but an official didn't have to deal with kryptonite. The worst thing that could happen was someone kicking a little dirt on your shoes.
"Gentleman," the legendary ump Bill Klem announced when presented pictorial evidence that he had blown a call. "He was out because I said he was out."
Well, it's not like that anymore. Last week the NBA referees reached agreement with the league on a new contract, just in time for the start of the regular season. And the only question in my mind was, Why would anyone want to officiate games in 2009?
While fans have always had strong feelings about sports' judges—"Kill the umpire!" and all that—the abuse lately has rivaled that heaped on the Balloon Boy Dad and Bernie Madoff. Baseball's men in blue, in particular, seem to rank slightly below ambulance-chasing lawyers after missing a dizzying series of calls this postseason, so many that MLB has reportedly decided to go with only experienced umps for the World Series.
Not that this is likely to silence the boos. Baseball's refusal to expand its use of instant replay has moved from quaint to self-defeating to an almost Unabomber-like stubbornness toward technology. Even former ump Don Denkinger, most famous for blowing a crucial call during the 1985 World Series, has come out in favor of replay.
Then there's college football. Last month SEC commissioner Mike Slive announced at a Chattanooga Rotary Club, "I've just never felt that a public hanging in the square is going to make us better officials." This seemed a pretty reasonable stance in the face of calls for Slive to name officials who missed calls, especially because the SEC pays them a few thousand dollars a year—only enough to supplement their day jobs as insurance salesmen or financial planners.
Two weeks later, however, Slive held a public hanging. He suspended Marc Curles's crew after they made some mistakes, particularly a crucial and mystifying personal-foul call against Arkansas in its game with Florida. Slive said he would have full confidence in the crew after they returned from suspension. Apparently they will learn valuable lessons on how to officiate during their unpaid vacation.
In the Pac-10, Big Sky and Big 12, official reprimands of referees have been thrown like confetti. But then, football gave up on human officiating long ago. In the NFL, officials barely even count anymore—coaches have their own flags, television cameras are the final arbiters, and after overturned calls referees are forced to stand before the crowd and admit their mistakes, like guilty schoolchildren. Next, there will be a giant chalkboard on the field for them to write, I promise to watch more closely, 500 times.
This isn't just happening in the U.S. England is still buzzing after referee Mike Jones allowed a goal in the Liverpool-Sunderland Premier League match on Oct. 17, even though replays showed conclusively that the Sunderland shot had bounced off a beach ball that had been thrown onto the field. A beach ball!
Poor Jones was assailed from all sides. Former ref Jeff Winter lambasted him for apparently not knowing the basic FIFA rule that "the referee stops, suspends or abandons the match because of outside interference of any kind." Meanwhile, Sunderland manager Steve Bruce said that anyone who knew the rule about soccer balls hitting beach balls was "a saddo." This was only a couple of weeks after Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said that some referees are "as fit as butcher's dogs." (Colorful phrasing.)
So to sum up: Officials are either incompetent losers or fat geeks who need to get lives.
But the NBA refs came back anyway. True, they do make good money—senior officials earn around $500,000 with good benefits—but how much money is enough to deal with America's disgust? After all, college officials make a lot less, and high school officials make a lot less than that.
So what's to keep people out there making the calls? "In my heart, I thought he left too soon," umpire Tim McClelland said after calling the Yankees' Nick Swisher out for leaving the bag early on a sac fly. Replays showed McClelland was wrong, but he did not want to believe the videotape or the nation's boos. He wanted to believe his own heart. In today's angry world, who could blame him?
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When it comes to TAKING ABUSE, refs rival the Balloon Boy Dad and Bernie Madoff.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW