Referees: We Love to Hate Them

You know why we love watching sports on TV? Same reason we love watching local newscasts—because we love watching people screw up. We cheer long and loud when a basketball player makes a steal and races up the court, only to bounce his windmill dunk off the back of the rim with a resounding whang. We leap off the couch and cheer wildly when the college marching band takes the field during the final play of the game. We cackle with mad pleasure when a spoiled, arrogant NASCAR driver taps the bumper of a car driven by another spoiled, arrogant NASCAR driver, sending his rival into the wall and tumbling across the track end-over-end in a spectacular crash that causes your whale eye to pucker involuntarily. Kind of makes that inappropriate comment you made at today’s office birthday party seem insignificant in comparison.

It’s good to see that millionaire athlete/entertainers can make the same bonehead mistakes that we simpering mortals do, and it makes us feel even better when they do it in front of millions of witnesses. Humans will always find a way to screw the pooch, whether it’s platform diving, funny car driving, or called-third-strike umpire conniving. We couch TV jocks thrill at the athletic achievements offered up in pro sports, but we also take great comfort and even empathy in watching our heroes stumble.

But I’d like to shine a light on the other side of this coin. It’s the source of billions of man-hours spent arguing sports minutiae in bars, taverns and smelly man caves around the world: the blown calls made by the officials. You got your petulant plate umpire, whose wife put the wrong flavor of syrup on his waffles that morning, so he takes out his marital strife on the visiting team by shrinking the strike zone. There’s the line judge at the NFL game who was just served a subpoena in the locker room before the game, and his anguish over falling behind in his child support payments keeps him from making accurate sideline calls.

The argument goes like this: we have the technology to remove human error from the equation. All sports officiating can be done with sensors, timers, lasers, and computer-generated measuring systems. Well, sure, but as Robert De Niro put it so eloquently in Raging Bull, “it defeats its own purpose!” Human error is the defining quality of humanity. Without it, we might as well be watching a video game.

Yes, I’m among those sports fans who, at times, have thought calling football refs “human” was a generous assertion, but I’ve come to realize that the very nature of human infallibility is what makes televised sports successful and entertaining. The NFL is not quick to embrace technology, thankfully. Every year, it seems, the competition committee dry-washes its hands over how much they should use instant replay and how often the coaches can challenge the calls made on the field. Obviously, if every single call was reviewed, the games would last nine hours. Divorce rates would skyrocket. So we’re forced to rely on the judgment of these flawed, ordinary people in black and white stripes to call a fair game.

And that’s a good thing.

Instant replay is great, but I railed against using it as part of the officiating process in NFL games when it came into vogue. I eventually came to understand and appreciate its value in keeping things true and fair. Even the reviewed calls, though, can be blown. I’ve watched games where three or four zebras huddle under the hood on the sidelines and study the replay like they’re analyzing the Zapruder film. And then they’ll emerge and confidently make exactly the wrong call. It’s not foolproof.

The way technology is methodically encroaching on college and pro sports shown on TV, I figure it’s just a matter of time before sensors are inserted into the balls and even the players’ uniforms, so when they or the ball crosses an electronically enhanced border, the referee (they’ll need only one for the whole game) receives a jolt in his shock collar and throws the flag. Or signals a touchdown. Or attacks a cheerleader (they’ll have to work out the bugs).

Look at the baseball playoffs. You love sitting in your living room, disputing the balls and strikes being called from two thousand miles away, and you know damn well the camera angle from the outfield wall gives you a better view of the plate than the ump crouching six feet behind it. But the networks don’t want you to have to guess. They intrude further into the game each season, showing the computer-modeled arc of each pitch, or an algorithm-derived position of each ball hurled across the plate, and its relations to the strike zone. The ump called that pitch low and outside? Oh really? Well, CBS’s AccuBall-3D™ UmpTrumper© feature clearly shows that pitch nipping the edge of the plate. Might as well be watching Wii Baseball.

If computers and sensors and multiple camera angles can show indisputable proof of every pitch, kick, serve, drive, header and painful groin foul that happens during the game, what’s left to argue about? When do we say enough’s enough, let’s try to keep the human element in these human contests? I think I hit that wall a year ago. It was during the Dolphins-Steelers game, when Ben “Rape Is My Middle Name” Roethlisberger plunged into the Dolphins end zone and dropped the ball. A Dolphins player recovered, but the replay overturned the call made on the field, giving the Steelers a chance to kick the game-winning field goal. Oh, you’d better believe I was pissed. I was Lou Piniella spitting and kicking dirt on the TV. I was Serena Williams at the U.S. Open. I was Jim Everett after Jim Rome called him “Chris” one time too many. The Dolphins were knocked out of the playoff race because of that blown call.

But what if some crazy electronics had been in place that proved beyond all doubt that the Dolphins had not, in fact, recovered Roethlisberger’s fumble? Who would I get mad at? Nikola Tesla, for discovering alternating current that started this whole thing? Pete Rozelle for not living to be 140 so he could rule the NFL with an iron hand and the wisdom of Solomon? Forget about it. We need meat-based officiating. Keeping the human element in televised sports is key to our continued enjoyment and passion for watching them.

So keep your chins up, zebras. You’re not perfect, and neither are we. Besides, if you’re a sports fan who feels like there’s not enough high-tech computer wizardry in sports, you can always buy an Xbox.


"What do you want from me, punk? I'm calling this game for three dollars and a hot dog!"

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