Monday, October 1, 2012

What Do Good Sports Referees Really Do?

Well the “replacement” referees of the NFL have been exiled, and the “regular” referees returned to a standing ovation, only to be booed ten minutes later. We all learned that the job of a referee is not easy and requires training, experience and presence. The NFL along with most fans assumed anyone could be a referee, now we know this is not the case. For one thing referees have to have enough integrity not to be corrupted, but that is only the beginning Good referees must not only be technically competent but must possess the authority and leadership to control the culture of the game on the field.

All sport competitions are GAMES, and games depend upon rules. The rules define the purpose and internal coherence of the actions among players. Rules define who wins and loses, how to score and above all what behaviors are permitted in pursuit of scores and victory. In the crucible of competition, rules require authoritative interpretation to hold the game together.  The replacement referee experience reminds us how central a “good” referee is to making sports competition work.

I want to think about the ethical and social role that referees play in sports competition. They key lies in the fact that referees act as the authority in a game. Good referees know how to technically call the game but good refs also influence the culture of play on the field with their authority. Both functions are vital and related.

·      They regulate the game by technically interpreting rules. They make calls and call fouls and enforce rules and penalties.
·      They control the “tone” and “tempo” of the game and profoundly influence on field attitudes and potential for mayhem.

First, the technical competence involves more than book learning. Like most professional areas, sports competition segments into levels of expertise and elite competition. As the level of competition rises, the speed, size and stakes or the games grow, so do the technical demands on the referees.

To be a technically competent referee a person must:
  •        Understand rules and be technically competent:
  •        Understand patterns of play;
  •        Be able to see violations under pressure and speed of play;
  •        Be clear and decisive in the calls;
  •        Know the tricks of the trade where players hide violations or fake being fouled;
  •       Withstand intimidation that players, coaches and crowds will bring pressure upon a referee.
Even good referees, however, will make mistakes. I live in Seattle and remember what referees did to the 2005 Seahawks in the Super Bowl. I am from the PAC10 where our referees grew into a national joke and miscalled several vital games on national TV. Reforming our referees was one of the major jobs of the new commissioner. I remember how umpire Jim Joyce destroyed Armando Galarrago’s perfect game with a blown call.

Even good referees will make mistakes just like good people will make mistakes. The key lies whether the error is an anomaly in a competent performance. If the referee or umpire has earned respect and credibility over time, people will give the referee the benefit of the doubt. They will “live with” the mistakes in light of an overall competence and professionalism that the players and coaches trust.

Experienced players and coaches know that mistakes happen and that mistakes tend to even out over the course of a game and season. You win some you lose some. This is true even as stakes go up.

While fans, coaches, and players may scream and yell, most will accept mistakes from honest and competent referees whom they know they will see again. This is doubly important so players can “let go” of a bad call and get their head back into the game. Players know that they will face these referees in the future. No player wants to create permanent animus with a referee who will judge him or her on a regular basis. The inexperienced and marginally competent replacement referees aggravated both these issues as players could not let go and eroded the authority and position of the judges.

The technical competence issues flow seamlessly into the authority/credibility issues. Referees earn part of their authority from their competence and fairness—their professional integrity. A good referee is a good technician. However this is not enough given the emotional energy and physical intensity, contact and aggression in the game. The competitive energy in games can feel like fusion reactors ready to blow escalate out of control and good referees provide the toroid field to hold and channel that energy.

Good referees earn a deeper authority and respect to perform the most important function. The “calls” take place in the context of the tempo, flow and feel of the game. Referees control the feel of the game, the level and type of social interaction among the players and set the critical boundaries for behavior that limits and focuses aggression and ferocity of players. Sometimes teams simply do not like each other and bring a deeper level of antagonism onto the field. Good referees channel the competitive energy, bound the potential hostility and keep opponents from turning into enemies on the field of play.

Players compete to win. They hate to lose. They strive for every minute advantage. Top competitors will live at the edge of the rules pushing to maximize any competitive advantage. In the heat of high stakes competition egged on by coaches and wild fans, players need incredible self-control to keep focused and keep their cool. They have a hundred reasons to get angry or retaliate during any game. Many players spew an endless stream of vitriol to get inside player’s heads and get them to lose it.

Referees buttress the players self control, and like parents referees give players an extra reason and incentive to keep it together under stress or temptation.

Holding the competition together involves artful leadership. One size does not fit all given the differences among players but also game contexts. Sometimes referees might calm players. They may talk, joke, and touch them. Sometimes they explain, sometimes stare down, sometimes coldly ignore. Somehow referees have to ignore and tame hyperthyroid coaches ranting at them. A referee may ignore a host of minor or meaningless violations to maintain a level of play and tempo and will focus upon critical or impactful violations. A referee can warn sometimes but at a critical moment may make a hard and harsh strategic call to affirm a boundary of behavior.

So controlling the tenor of the game involves a tightrope. You can hear coaches, crowds and announcers screaming “let them play.” It sometimes can feel like the “referees have taken control of the game” by their obvious and limiting calls. We talk about “ticky tack” fouls for minor infractions. Constant foul calls destroy the chance for either team to gain rhythm or momentum. This undercuts the skill and proficiency of both teams as well as enjoyment of the game. Yet at other times, players verge on violence; too much pushing too much after the play contact; too many hard fouls. The sport does not matter, but at the tipping point where aggression erupts into mayhem decisive referees must do the exact opposite and call some hard and quick and decisive fouls to stop the spiral of anger and physical contact that can coil out of control. They have to take control of the game.

In the NFL debacle the referees were bad on two counts. They were not corrupt and were well intentioned, but they were not competent and they had no authority. The more errors they made the less chance they had to develop authority. So the number of minor skirmishes escalated; coaches grabbed them; players pushed and informal violence on the field crept up along with the bad calls and wavering decisions.

The downward vortex of disrespect, errors, mounting violence and frustration were destroying the game on the field and endangering players. Good referees create a holding environment for the competitive passion and ferocity and tension of the game.

A friend who is a superb referee once told me, "I know I have done my job when I am invisible." He got it exactly right, a good referee shapes and flow and fairness and competence of a game that enables the players to play at their highest capacity and we focus on the play, not the rules. This NFL experience had far less to do with the technical competence and far more with the deeper moral role of referees as the stewards of behavior and culture on the field of play.

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