In Defense of Zebras: the Impossible Task of the Referee

A couple of years ago I was officiating a middle school basketball game between the school where I teach and another school. Since my school was dominating, I only called fouls on our team. This wasn’t enough to appease the opposing coach, who spent the whole first half riding me. Our schools are Montessori schools, and the league was founded with the goal of providing an encouraging atmosphere for our students. With that in mind, I approached the other coach at halftime. “Laurie,” I said. “I’ve got this. Would you mind letting me call it?”

“I’m just trying to protect my guys!” said Laurie, holding her arms out wide, consternation on her face. It suddenly became clear that to her I was no longer Alex, the colleague she’d known for a couple years. I was something far more detestable. I was a ref.

Referees are reviled, attacked, mocked, repeatedly asked about their vision, and consistently disrespected. The men’s college basketball National Championship game between North Carolina and Gonzaga was the latest event to put officials in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. “North Carolina Cut Down the Nets, but the Referees Won the National Championship” read one ironic headline. “The Referees Ruined What Should Have Been a Great NCAA Title Game” read another.

Despite my own experience as a ref, I didn’t necessarily disagree. The game was foul-plagued and choppy, lacking the flow of a great basketball game. But it got me thinking: what is it about putting on a striped shirt and a whistle that causes people to stop seeing you as a fellow human?

“What is it about putting on a striped shirt and a whistle that causes people to stop seeing you as a fellow human?”

To answer this questions it is helpful to break down the social conventions that go into a sporting event. At its most basic, a game is a competition between two parties using an agreed upon set of rules. Often, such competitions don’t involve a referee. Pickup games, paradoxically, tend to be far less contentious than officiated events. Sure tempers can flare, but the onus of order is on the two competing parties. If order starts to break down, the fabric of the game will break down as well, and so the players feel a responsibility toward maintaining that fabric. If someone gets out of line, it is often their teammates that will help restore civility. This gives pickup games the intense but jocular energy they often have. No harm no foul.

Once a referee is involved, however, the onus of order has been transferred to a third party. This has the effect of removing any sense of responsibility from the competing parties. The official is charged with being an impartial arbiter. In a sense, we stop seeing a referee as a human because their task is robotic. In a pickup game humorous and sometimes heated negotiations will influence how a certain rule is interpreted. With an official there is no room for this kind of subjectivity (imagine, for example, a ref saying, “I made that call because I felt like it,” or, worse, “I made that call because I dislike Lebron James”). With both sides seeking a competitive advantage, it is natural for players to try and get as close to the edge of what is permissible as possible. Bending rules becomes strategic, and it is up to the ref to determine where that edge is. But this is ultimately a subjective interpretation, varying with each individual referee. And yet we judge the performance of a referee based on a Platonic ideal of objectivity. It’s an impossible task.

As a longtime soccer player, I’ve watched this dynamic play out on the field time and time again. By far the most dangerous games are the ones in which the referees have the most laissez-faire attitude. When people get as close to the edge of the permissible as they can, and don’t find it, they tend to cross it. And since they expect the ref to maintain control, they feel no personal responsibility for doing so. So players become increasingly violent, but rather than reigning it in for the sake of the social fabric, that responsibility has been transferred to the official.

Therein lies the paradox: If a referee doesn’t implement the rules, they are blamed for allowing the game to devolve. But if they do implement the rules, as they did during the National Championship game, they are blamed for taking over the game. To excel is to be invisible, and yet to excel is also to maintain order. But an invisible ref can’t maintain order. Instead, any judgment is perceived as a slight against one team and a ruling for the other. Hence the phrase commonly employed by frustrated players and fans: “Ball don’t lie.” The implication being, of course, that refs do.

“To excel is to be invisible, and yet to excel is also to maintain order. But an invisible ref can’t maintain order.”

As a PE teacher I see this happen every day. During gym games, both sides feel like I’m favoring the other team. And so I’ve taken to settling disputes with rock, paper, scissors. This has the advantage of returning the onus of order to the students. Rather than me being the arbiter, and ultimately making a decision that helps one team and hurts another, the players quite literally put the decision in their own hands. And an amazing thing happens: since by playing rock, paper, scissors they have both tacitly agreed to let the outcome determine the ruling, they both walk away appeased. Also, rock, paper, scissors is fun, and by the end of it they’ve usually forgotten what they were arguing about in the first place.

The high stakes of professional sports doesn’t quite lend itself to this kind of solution (though who wouldn’t love to watch Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant settle a pivotal moment with rock, paper, scissors?). An alternative solution would be to have robot referees, which would allow true objectivity. This reality might be closer than we imagine (think: instant replay). But for many sports fans, it is also somewhat off putting. When it comes down to it, sports are a human endeavor, and robot referees would remove some of that humanity.

A more realistic approach might be to stop pretending that referees are objective and impartial. When we expect robotic precision from human agents we will always be disappointed. But if we recognize them as subjective entities, we might start seeing them as entertaining and flawed pieces of the competitive puzzle. Some notable refs, like Dick Bavetta of the NBA or Ed Hochuli of the NFL, have managed to rise above the zebra stripes. As humans, they’ve been celebrated more often than vilified.

Which brings me to my favorite referee of all time, a bald and portly fellow with a thick Boston accent who has officiated dozens of my soccer games over the years. During one memorable instance an opposing player committed a foul and the ref issued a yellow card. When the penalized player freaked out, the ref said, “Get to the bench, Murphy.” Murphy was a loud mouth and so the ref had come to know his name over the course of the season, much to Murphy’s chagrin: “Take my name out of your mouth!” screamed Murphy. “Don’t you ever say my name again!” A robot might have ignored these provocations and returned to the objective task of officiating. Instead, the ref looked right at him and calmly said, “Murphy.” A string of curses and a red card followed, and the rest of the game, it turns out, was perfectly civilized.

Featured image by Keith Allison via Flickr.