Sunday, August 9, 2009

“Referee, Referee B-@-$-!-@-R-D!”

Everyone has their favorite season, some like spring for the renewal of life, others prefer fall for the cooler days and beautiful foliage. My favorite season is football. I enjoy attending games in person, watching them on TV, and listening to them on the radio. My wife claims I’m so obsessed that I’d even watch a televised game between the Wofford Terriers and Austin Peay Governors (real teams about which I know nothing).

I like football so much I even referee football. Because there is a place for everyone, football is the perfect game for kids. Big kids, fat kids, skinny kids all have a place on the team. Working together, the boys all labor to set and attain goals. Football teaches teamwork, the benefits of hard work and the importance of doing your job.

There is however, an ugly side of football, something that can ruin the game for everyone. It’s not coaches, players or the referees. It’s the monsters inhabiting the bleachers—parents. Most parents have the best interests of their kids in mind—but when they watch football they leave the objective portion of their “mind” at home. There is something about sports that causes parents to abandon rational thought. There are three main causes for the parent problem; bias, ignorance and susceptibility to mass hysteria.

I think that it goes without saying that parents have a bias, they want Junior to be wildly successful. But because of their bias they don’t always see action the way it really occurs. Scientific studies conducted on human memory prove human have a propensity to remember erroneously events and details that did not occur. It’s estimated that at least 50% of wrongful convictions are based on eyewitness testimony. Pre-determined bias only magnifies this human shortcoming. For example, many people “remember” Danny Ainge biting Tree Rollins when in reality it was the other way around. (Headline in the Boston Herald the next day: "Tree Bites Man").

Parents see games in a light most favorable to their child—the way they wanted things to happen. They fail to notice, or discount the seriousness of, their kid’s fouls or violations, but if he trips and falls they can’t understand why the referees didn’t see the other team, a pack of Hell’s Angels, and five nunchuck wielding ninjas clip Junior and then pummel him to the ground. “Referee, are you blind? What are you watching out there?”

Referees spend hours each year reading the rule books and must pass two written test to certify as an official. Parents watch John Madden for a couple of hours on TV and then don’t understand why referees don’t know the “rules” as well as they do. They also don’t know that there are differences between NFL, NCAA and High School rules—after all football is football right? Wrong. For example, tripping the ball carrier is OK in high school but not the NFL. Try explaining that to a parent with a TV.

Parent: “Didn’t you see that ref? He tripped my son, the ball carrier.”
Referee: “Yes, I know.”
Parent: “Aren’t you going to throw a flag?”
Referee: “For what?”
Parent: “Tripping.”
Referee: “Tripping the ball carrier is legal”
Parent: “No it’s not; John Madden says it's illegal.”
Referee: “It’s legal in High School.”
Parent: “You’re an idiot; don’t you know the rules?” “Hey everyone, this referee doesn’t know the rules!”
Crowd (In Unison): “Referee, referee B-@-$-!-@-R-D!”

Another area of parental misunderstanding is the holding rule. People shout “holding” at referees so often they’re afraid to hold their wives in bed at night for fear of getting yelled at. There are 22 players on the field and it’s probable that at any given time one or two of them may be “holding”. However, unless the holding prevents a player from moving naturally toward the ball carrier at a place and time that may affect the play, referees are inclined to let it go and warn the players involved. Obviously for the parent of the “holdee” that’s not good enough. For Example; team "A" runs a sweep to the opposite side of the field that gains two yards. During the play their child, who never got closer than 40 yards to the play, was briefly impeded. The parent wants the offender and the referee suspended and possibly even drawn-and quartered. Of course their team never holds anyone, it's always the "other" team.

Mass hysteria
Mass hysteria ignites when a single individual becomes hysterical during a period of excitement and spreads until the whole crowd is infected. For example, I once faced an angry mob of parents ready to lynch me because they felt I couldn’t count to 12. During a kickoff two referees stand at the middle of the field, one facing the defense, the other the offense. They are there for two reasons; to give the ball to the kicking team and count the players. When the referees are 100% confident that there are 11 players on each side they indicate to each other that there are 11 players on each side. Only then do they move to the sideline.

In this game the two referees had each counted to 11 (twice), suddenly a parent yelled; “They have 12 players.” The referees and the league president re-counted—still only 11 players. Too late, the crowd was infected. Suddenly, accountants, mechanics, doctors, and bankers (the lawyers left to file suit against us) all counted a mythical 12th fifth-grader (yep, this was a game between 11-year-olds). Until then I hadn’t realized that allowing 12 11-year-old players on the field was a capital offense, I was clearly mistaken.

Not only that, but there is no forgiveness for referees. If a referee makes a perceived mistake he must be cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone for all eternity (which is how long this game lasted). For the rest of the game we enjoyed witticisms like; “Referee, number 17 was off-sides, but since you can’t even count to 12 . . . "

Referees don’t care who wins, don’t see clipping ninjas and don't call holding on every play, but they do like your kids and enjoy teaching them the rules. They officiate football because they get to work outside with some pretty good friends and participate in a sport they enjoy. Next time you attend a game, please remember that referees are not infallible; however, they do study the rules, are free from bias and have been inoculated against mass hysteria.


  1. First, let me state clearly that I agree with most parents that there is no place on the field for nunchuck wielding ninjas in football. It is just wrong.

    I also think that yelling at the ref should be allowed, but only to licenced "ref critics." To recieve a license you must have at least 2 years officiating under your own belt for the sport that you are critiquing and a minimum of 1 year doing another sport. And staying after your church ball game to ref the next one doesnt' count, even if you do it all season long. In addition to the experience requirement, you must pass a written test to show that you really do know the rules better than the ref, then pass an oral interview with a panel of referees, coaches and players (your kid can't be one of the players). Finally, you must pass the eye exam, because blind critics are even worse than blind referees.

    I think it would be so cool next time I'm at a BYU game if security would come up to the guys in the box behind me and say: "Excuse me sir, you clearly went beyond the acceptable grumbling limit on that last play and committed yelling. I need to see your 'ref critic' license. What? you don't have one? I'm sorry sir but I'm going to have to ask you to leave the stadium and I'll be impounding your seats for the rest of the season." That would so make my day.