Loving to hate refs • Nick Nunn
In 1958, fed up with several changes in the game of basketball, including the prevalence of “biological blowups with runaway pituitary glands who play at basketball,” Shirley Povich, famed sports columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a searing critique of basketball officials, stating that:
“Even that last precious motivation of healthy partisanship, the pleasure of rooting for somebody, evaporates at a basketball game in common outrage against the referee who is usually wronging both teams, as well as the spectators... it is thus inevitable that the referee must wind up as the enemy of all cheering sections.”
And now, some 55 years later, we still love to hate referees.
Surely, no one else in the public eye – other than politicians, perhaps – are more openly criticized on a regular basis than referees.
Why? Why are we so disrespectful, even mean, to these men, whose only sin is the attempt to instill a degree of fairness and safety into sporting events, many of which around here involve our own children, relatives, or friends?
Because it is simply a whole lot of fun.
Personally, I don’t think that I’ve ever uttered any more than a “come on!” at a ref before, but I’ve never felt that I’ve had to stifle my laughter when a nearby fan tears into a ref during the game.
Some of the insults I’ve heard are downright hilarious.
In addition to the classics – “You’re missing a good game here, ref!” or “If you had one more eye, you’d be a cyclops!” – some quips have been quite creative. Like, “Hey ref, did your glass eye get fogged up on that one?!?”
Of course, this isn’t the appropriate forum for some of the ones I’ve heard...
Perhaps it is too easy to judge referees. After all, the role that we expect them to play is nothing short of godlike; they are supposed to be everywhere on the court, seeing every single event and being able to judge with complete understanding of the small world of sport.
Is it any surprise that the women and gentlemen in that role fall short on a regular basis?
Fans don’t even acknowledge refs as humans during the games. Refs in black and white stripes are “zebras,” while softball and baseball fans take to calling their officials “blue” because of their uniforms.
So, when referees become abused on a regular basis, why do we become surprised when they level little punishments on the team that we root for?
Of course they don’t mean it, but, despite their dehumanizing role, they find themselves doing the most human thing of all: seeking revenge.
Calls don’t get called, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties are handed out – oh, there’s nothing I love more than a technical foul called on a screaming coach – and teams earn “make-up calls.”
Side note: “Make-up calls” have to be listed as one of the strangest forms of punishment ever. One group gets punished unfairly, so an unfair punishment is levied on the opposing group.
However, even if sports fans look at their attitudes toward referees from the most enlightened and rational perspective, do you think that people will curb their complaints against the demi-gods on the field?
No way. Because, as I mentioned above, bullying referees is fun.
Printed in the February 14, 2013 edition