We’re all referees when we watch sports; most of us just don’t wear stripes. The crowd yells at every close call but knows we need someone providing objective rulings in the cauldron of competition. That is, until the call goes against us. Suddenly, the ref is biased, blind, or a bully.
In other words: When it matters, no referee is good enough for us.
Players themselves are undercutting the delicate balance of power that exists among coach, player, and referee. All-star basketball player Draymond Green claimed NBA officiating is “ruining the game” after picking up his 11th technical foul last week. He conveniently ignored his long history of unapologetically physical play, or that referees are paid to keep players known for their combativeness in check. While athletes are always looking to push the envelope on what they can do without penalty, only the weak think themselves immune to consequences. There’s an old saying, Draymond: “Hang around the barbershop long enough, you’ll get a haircut.”
All that complaining comes at a cost. LaVar Ball, the NBA’s unofficial Kardashian and self-proclaimed change agent, pulled his son’s AAU team off the court and forfeited a playoff game this summer because he was whistled for a technical foul. What is he teaching the kids on that team? When the going gets tough, quit if the rules are inconvenient?
Umpires in any sport have it bad enough. No one pays to see the ref; as with cat burglars, the goal of the profession is to go unnoticed. They’re the embodiment of the saying “Work hard in silence, let success make the noise.” That’s no longer enough. Athletes in every sport, at every level, now expect the rules to bend to their will. We’ve come to a crossroads — how do we want our young athletes to react to adversity in the heat of battle?
One way is exemplified by NFL receiver A.J. Green’s comments after getting tossed for fighting this season: “As a player, as a man, and a father, that’s a reflection of me. I should have walked off in that situation. … It’s never going to happen again. I regret my actions. Whatever the punishment, I accept it. I put myself in that situation.”
Then there’s Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson, who reacted to a recent ejection by attempting to jump into the stands to assault a fan who’d thrown a beer in his direction while he was escorted to the locker room: “I’m not going to let somebody disrespect me like that.”
Right. Be the guy making a fortune playing a child’s game who decides to attack the very people responsible for your salary simply because you feel “disrespected.” I’d take half your salary to have beer thrown at me while in full pads and a helmet. My students cough phlegm on me all day for free.
The purpose of athletic competition is not merely winning but rather to serve as an avenue through which to forge the attributes society values most: perseverance, honor, and the ability to deal with adversity. When these attributes are pushed aside in the interest of winning at all costs, society suffers in the long run. We end up with entitled kids and games that last forever because of video replay.
Blow the whistle, already. It’s time we let officials do their jobs before the rules become optional. Just play the darn game before you take the fun out of everything.
Besides, if we’re good enough, the referee doesn’t matter.