Athletic Contests are Often Decided by Officiating and Not By the Athletes Themselves
Observations on Referees and Umpires
Over the years as I have watched community, junior high school and high school sports events, I have become more and more convinced that way too many of these games are decided by the officials or referees–and not by the athletes themselves. The are many reasons why this is so, such as outright biased officiating, referees or umpires who do not concentrate on the game as they should do and make the proper calls, or officials who have some type of connection or friendship with a team, a player on a team, a coach, or parents of an athlete.
In community youth sports leagues (such as basketball, football or soccer), it often appears that the referee is buddy-buddy with one of the teams, friends with the coach of one of the teams, or friends with parents of one or more players on the team. The officiating is so one-sided, it leads you to feel that the referee has some kind of connection with the team he or she is calling the fewest fouls or other calls against one team.
In youth basketball, I have seen my 10-year-old nephew get slammed in the face when attempting a rebound or whacked on the arms when attempting a shot–and no foul was called. A few moments later, he attempts to steal the ball from an opposing player, and quickly gets a foul called on him, when there was no slapping or pushing done by him.
This reminds me of something that happened 10 to 15 years ago in a high school basketball game. A 6-foot-8 player, with his team ahead by a big margin with just two or three minutes left in the game, decided to show off by grabbing a defensive rebound and dribble the ball the length of the floor, to probably do a slam dunk. However, the point guard of the home team, coached by a good friend of mine, traps the 6-foot-8 center at half court, forcing the 6-foot-8 player to pick up his dribble. This center then swings his elbows at the shorter point guard and gives the point guard a bloody nose. No foul is called, and the 6-foot-8 player continues down the floor. My coaching friend yells at the referees, “How can my player get a bloody nose, and you don’t even call a foul?”
When things like this happen in a game, it is obviously biased officiating. In two consecutive junior high school basketball games, my 13-year-old nephew was undercut by opposing players when trying to grab rebounds. One time he went down face first, and the second time on his side–and no foul was called either time. When basketball referees allow one team to get away with extremely physical play, it is like playing indoor football with no pads and no helmets. And when referees are not calling the fouls when a team is getting away with physical play, that is when there could easily be some serious injuries in the game. But if the referees would call the fouls on such a team right from the opening tipoff, then the team playing by the rules does not run so much a risk of having one of its players injured.
I have seen games involving both of these nephews, as well as in high school games my 16-year-old nephew has played in, where their opponents are much more physical than their teams are. And which team gets the most fouls called on them–not the overly physical team but rather the team that is playing basketball the way it should be played. My 10-year-old nephew and his teammates, in a game that was closed for a quarter and also half of the second quarter, suddenly had five or six fouls called on them in three or four minutes–while the physical team that was getting away with pushes and bumps and slaps, did not have any fouls. All of a sudden, the opposing team has a 10-point lead by halftime. My nephew’s team did not recover from that. And that was just another game where the officiating turned the game around–and a team was not able to recover from the one-sided officiating. That game should have been competitive well into the second half.
Another mark of poor quality officiating in young league basketball games as well as junior high school and high school games is traveling violations not being called. In one particular youth league game my 10-year-old nephew was playing in, the opposing team was traveling with the ball on almost every possession of the game, especially one certain player who kept traveling with the ball to move into open territory–and he made several field goals after traveling with the ball, and was not being called for the traveling. My nephew’s team, I believe, would have won this game in a blowout if the traveling violations had been called on the opponents. But the game was a close game, and my nephew’s team was able to get a two-point lead with about two minutes left in the game. Then, to the surprise of my brother-in-law and I, the referee finally called traveling on the player who had been traveling with the ball all game long–and the violation was called in back court! This was one of those games when I said to my brother-in-law, “Your son’s team played a great game today, because not only did they have to defeat their opponents but they also had to defeat the referees. This game was literally five players versus seven–five players verses five players and two referees.”
Yes, it is sad that there are too many games when one team has to not only defeat the opponents, but has to play well enough to defeat the referees–that is, to overcome the one-sided or biased officiating to win the game.
And speaking of traveling violations, years ago I lost almost all interest in National Basketball Association games because superstar players were not being called for traveling, fouls, and acts of poor sportsmanship. I would watch the highlights of NBA games on ESPN Sportscenter, and would find myself saying, “Traveling; traveling; traveling ...” as I watched the highlights. So many of the highlighted plays included players who traveled with the ball before scoring a basket.
Some superstar players at that time, especially Michael Jordan, caused me to lose interest in NBA basketball because they traveled with the ball often, were not called for fouls, and also were not called for poor sportsmanship, including taunting the opponents or trash talking against the opponents.
In a game on television, a rookie stole the ball from Michael Jordan and scored an uncontested layup or dunk. Then as the rookie headed down court, Jordan was in his face, taunting the rookie and trash talking. The two players ran right in front of the broadcast booth. Jordan is yelling in poor sportsmanship at the rookie, saying things like, “Don’t you ever do that to me again!” One of the broadcasters then commented, “Michael Jordan is yelling at the rookie. It’s as if he is saying, ‘I’m Michael Jordan and you don’t do things like that to Michael Jordan.’”
I call Jordan and several other superstars, including some superstars today, Referees’ Pets. These referees’ pets can get away with fouls, traveling, poor sportsmanship, and the NBA referees do not call violations on these superstar athletes as much or as often as should be called. Jordan would be standing behind the three-point line–and without dribbling the ball, go in for a slam dunk. NO TRAVELING CALLED! Jordan also got away with many fouls not being called on him, as well as taunting opponents or displaying poor sportsmanship. Michael Jordan was the main reason why I lost interest in NBA basketball in the 1990s, and more than 10 years later, I do not watch NBA games except occasionally if I am at a relative’s home and that is what he and his sons are watching on television.
I often felt that Michael Jordan should have had two technical fouls called on him in the first quarter or first half of the game, and thus ejected from the game. Most of the time when watching a game that he was playing in, I felt he should have had two technical fouls called on him early in the game and then ejected. He should not have been in the game for the entire game. I laughed hard one time when Jordan was called for a traveling violation in the last two minutes of a close game. The broadcaster makes a stupid comment, “You just don’t call a traveling violation on Michael Jordan in the last two minutes of a game. The referee should never have made such a call.” I thought to myself, “What a rarity. Michael Jordan finally called for traveling! Why didn’t the referees call traveling on him the entire game?”
I have lived in several states during my life. Referees at high school basketball games in different states are just about the same–not controlling the game early on by calling fouls when fouls should be called, or calling extremely one-sided games. This is especially true when referees allow coaches to yell and scream at the calls all game long and never call a technical foul. Over the years, three coaches stand out as getting away with this, one boys’ basketball coach in Texas, and also one boys’ basketball coach and one girls’ basketball coach in Louisiana. These coaches were constantly yelling at referees and complaining about the calls. This was true EVEN IF THEIR TEAM WAS AHEAD BY 20 OR 30 POINTS LATE IN THE GAME. All three of these coaches, I felt, should have had two technical fouls called on them in the first quarter of the game and again should have been ejected from the game. That girls’ coach, in a game that was deciding the district or league championship, was not only displaying poor sportsmanship by yelling at the officials the entire game, but he kept kicking over his chair or kicking the chair against the wall.
Such coaches as these, by their actions, seem to think that part of the strategy of the game is to intimidate the referees. And they are very bad referees who allow this type of conduct to go on through the entire game. Once at a high school boys’ soccer game, a coach, whose team had won the game, immediately raced onto the field when the buzzer sounded to end the game and yelled at the referees, arguing with them. As a friend and I were leaving the stadium, I commented, “Typical ... High School poor sportsmanship. He won the game and he still carries on with unsportsmanlike actions.” That particular high school was notorious for its public image of poor sportsmanship on the part of both coaches and athletes. One of that school’s fans overheard my comment to my friend, and walked in front of us, with the look in his eyes as if he was going to attack us physically. We walked faster and quickly got out of the stadium, away from that person. Who wants to stay around the stadium when a fan, whose team had won, is showing signs of poor sportsmanship?
In a high school football playoff game, two teams from the same district or league met again in the second round or third round of the playoffs. It was a home game in the community in which I lived. The opposing team had a running back who was being heavily recruited by major colleges. Right from the start of the game, he of course carried the ball most of the plays. And again, right from the start of the game, after he was tackled by opposing defensive players, he would stand up and make gestures with his hands at the faces of the opposing players, taunting them throughout the game. This was very disgusting that the referees allowed this heavily-recruited athlete to get away with taunting the entire game. The first time he did it, it should have been a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Then the second time he did it, another penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct should have been called, coupled with ejection from the game. I commented to a friend at the game, “That running back is going to be in trouble with the law after high school. He thinks he can get away with violating the rules of the game of football and he will take that mentality into his adult life. I won’t be surprised if he is in jail or prison some day.”
This same running back signed to play football with a major college, but was expelled from that team and school because of several violations of the law. A smaller college invited him to play football there, giving him a second chance at college ball. But once again, he committed the same violations of the law he did in the city where the major college was located. Then, to my surprise, having not even played one full season of college ball (10 or 12 games total), he gets drafted by a National Football League team. In his first season, he again gets arrested for the same violations of the law that he committed in the cities where the two colleges were located. Again, I was not surprised that he kept committing these violations of the law, based on the mentality he displayed as a high school athlete.
I was at a high school basketball game in which a player from the home team stole the ball from a player of the visiting team. The home team player then heads down the court for what would normally be an uncontested layup. The opposing player caught up to him, but not far enough to attempt a clean block on the shot. The opposing player undercut the player shooting the layup. The home team athlete landed head first on the floor and was knocked unconscious. Imagine the silence that came over the crowd, especially the home team’s fans, when that athlete lay on the floor and did not get up. The game had to be stopped to that an ambulance and paramedics could come and take the boy to the hospital. During the entire time that the game was stopped, the visiting team’s coach was yelling at the referees, saying, “My player should not have been called for a technical foul on that play!” If such violence had happened out on the street, the person who injured someone else would have been arrested on a charge of assault or other similar charge. But when a coach thinks it should be allowed in a ball game, he is guilty of poor sportsmanship.
To this day, I will always believe that this particular coach taught his players to use what’s often referred to as “dirty play.” I feel that he taught his athletes to play dirty, to do anything they could get away with that the referees were not calling. And then, of course, when a referees makes a call against one of his players for a violation that involved this dirty play, the coach bursts into yelling and screaming, claiming a foul or technical foul or other violation should not have been called on his player. Coaches who motivate athletes to use dirty techniques that are violations against the rules, I feel, are producing future criminals. These athletes, when they are out of high school and into society as adults, carry that type of mentality and think they can get away with violations of the law (robbery, shoplifting, assault, etc.). I found this to be true about the players of that team that I just spoke, coached by the coach whose player undercut the opponent and sent the opposing player to the hospital.
Later that summer, while working in an office that had newspapers from several communities, I kept seeing articles in one newspaper about robberies and other crimes. And when seeing the name of the person arrested, I would comment to a co-worker, “Look. There’s another ex-high school basketball athlete from ... High School who has been arrested.” There were at least four or five articles in that community’s newspaper in which I recognized the names of those who were arrested as former high school basketball athletes from that particular high school.
Not only are there coaches who think they have to intimidate the referees, there are many referees who by their actions actually intimidate the athletes. Once in a regional Babe Ruth League baseball tournament, hosted in the city I lived in, the home plate umpire intimidated the athletes of the home team, the host team. When calling balls and strikes, he would say things like this when it was the host team’s pitcher on the mound and it was not a strike: “That pitch was way too low! That pitch was way to way too high! That pitch was way outside.” Then when the host team was at bat, he would not make such comments when it was not a strike. But when he did call a strike with the out-of-town team’s pitcher pitching the ball, he would yell real loud, “Steeeeriiiiike!” A friend I was with at the game said, “Who does that umpire think he is, yelling so loud like that? What’s he trying to do, make himself the center of attention?” From that experience and from further observation, I agree with what my friend said, that there are umpires and referees who like to be the center of attention at games or like to make people think they are IN CHARGE.
Umpires and referees who conduct themselves this way are either very arrogant people, or they have a problem with inferiority complex or self-pity–or even a combination of arrogance and inferiority complex or self-pity. To feel good about themselves, they have to exert their supposed authority at the ball games. I feel that an umpire or referee who has self-confidence or good self-esteem and a positive mental attitude does not have to boast or bring attention to himself–does not have to PROVE HIS GREATNESS by drawing attention to himself. Good officiating at a ball game results in a fan of spectator leaving the game without even thinking about the umpires or the referees.
Once I was at a high school softball game when the home plate umpire stopped the game and asked both teams to gather around home plate, He said this to the athletes: “Now listen here. I am the umpire and I am in charge. You have to listen to what I say. Nobody should argue or question any of my calls.” That’s just another example of a person of arrogance or a person with an inferiority complex or self-pity. If there was a serious problem in the game, all he had to do was warn the coaches or players to stop doing what was against the rules of the game, or else someone could be ejected from the game.
I have seen basketball referees stop the game and ask to speak to the high school principal, asking the principal to take certain fans out of the gym. One baseball umpire I knew did the right thing in an incident he told me about. He was umpiring a high school baseball game. A fan was standing directly behind him and yelling and arguing about every call that went against the home team. My friend turned around and said, “You’re out of this ball park. Get out right now.” The man yelled back at him, “I am the principal of this school. You can’t tell me what to do on school grounds! You can’t tell me to leave school property!” What an example for teenagers at the ball game! A principal literally causing a public disturbance at a ball game at the school for which he works. Teenagers seeing the principal conduct himself that way are likely to use that as an excuse for their unruly behavior or poor sportsmanship at a game. And violent behavior of fans can be frightening, such as what happened to another coach I knew whose high school girls’ basketball team, after having played a playoff game on the road, had to be escorted off the school grounds and out of the community by police officers because the hometown fans were very violent and threatening to attack them or vandalize the bus. And who won the game that night? The home team! And there the fans were, making threats of violence at the visiting team that lost the game. It’s even more frightening to thing what would have happened if the visiting team had won the playoff game.
Another thing about officiating is what I alluded to early about youth league games–a referee having close ties to the coach or players of a team, or friends with parents of athletes of a team. I have seen referees at youth basketball games standing almost the entire half talking with the coach of the team that one of my nephew’s teams was playing against. And sure enough, it always was a very one-sided officiated game, in favor of the team whose coach the referee was visiting with during halftime.
Something that happened often in high school basketball games fits right in with this observation as well. High School “A” and High School “B” are arch rivals in a particular high school district or league, and these two schools are usually among the top teams in the district or league standings. Team “A” is playing Team “C” in a district or league game. If Team “A” were to lose to Team “C,” that would enable Team “B” to improve its chances at winning the district championship. This scenario occurred several times in these two ways: (1) One of the referees for the game between Team “A” and Team “C” was a junior high school basketball coach in the same community as High School “B;” and (2) One of the referees for the game between Team “A” and Team “C” is the father of an athlete on the team at High School “B.” Here the junior high school can call the game in favor of Team “C” so that the high school in his community can take a step toward the district championship. Or the father of the athlete from High School “B” can help his son’s team move closer to the district championship by having Team “A” lose its game. These were always very one-sided officiated games. And if Team “A” did win the game, it was another example of a game in which it was five verses seven, when Team “A” not only had to defeat the opposing team but also literally had to defeat the referees.
If there is one thing that referees in such sports as basketball, football and soccer need to do, is to not only make the proper calls but also to be sure to control the game early on so that athletes’ anger does not get heated up because of overly physical play being allowed, setting off tempers or even fights in the second half or last quarter of the game. In one of those youth basketball games, my nephew’s opponents were very physical and getting away with a lot of fouls not being called. My nephew’s team managed to get the lead late in the game. His team had a two-point lead when the opposing team committed a turnover. Since the referees were not calling the fouls very closely all game, the opponents then began using the strategy of the intentional foul to stop the clock. My nephew’s team was not in the one-and-one because so few fouls had been called on the opponents. The opponents began hitting the players on my nephew’s team even harder, causing my brother-in-law and I to become very concerned about his son or any of his son’s teammates getting hurt or suffering a serious injuries because the opponents were getting very violent with their intentional fouls t stop the clock. Finally, my nephew’s team got into the one-and-one and made a couple of free throws for a four-point lead. By the time the opponents scored again there were not very many seconds left in the game, and my nephew’s team was able to win a game despite the contest being kept close by the referees allowing so much physical play during the entire game.
I grew up playing in community church basketball and church volleyball leagues. I will admit that I especially liked volleyball not only because I had some flexibilities in my arms and shoulders that enabled me to receive serves very well without being called for double hits, but also because I did not have to worry about an opposing player getting real physical with me. But in a church basketball game one time, an opposing player grabbed a defenseive rebound. He did not pass the ball off to a teammate and tried to dribble the ball down court himself. I trapped him before he got to the half court line and forced him to pick up his dribble (just like in the story about the 6-foot-8 player who tried to show off in a high school game). When you pivot with the ball, your elbows are straight out from the sides of your chest. This particular boy did pivot with the ball, and rammed his elbow upward into my face, cutting my lip. And guess what? Yep, no offensive foul called on him for this violent action in the game. To this day, I feel that a 10-second violation should have been called on him for not crossing the half court line within the 10 seconds, because I had him trapped for several seconds in back court, after he had been dribbling down court for several seconds. If the referee had been counting the seconds as he should have when the ball is in back court, I believe that the whistle should have blown before this opponent elbowed me in the face.
Something else that happened a few times in this community church basketball league was an opposing player slugging a teammate of mind in a tender area of his body. Athletes who engage in this type of dirty play know that the average referee keeps watching the ball, watching for a possible foul on the shot. And with the referee's eyes focused above the offensive player's head, looking at the player's arms and at the ball, he does not see the dirty play that went on down below, the player shooting the ball getting slugged in the midsection of his body. That night, that teammate of mine laid on the floor groaning in pain for 10 or 15 minutes before he was able to return to the game. (That player and I worked well together. I was not much of a scorer, but I was good at setting screens so that he would have many open shots close to the basket. In today's basketball statistical analysis of a game, I would not be credited with assists in this regard, but my teammate sure scored a good number of baskets each game when he and I were in at the same time and I helped him with my screens.)
Over the years, I have enjoyed sports events–and today enjoy watching games with my nephews playing in them. But it gets very frustrating when a basketball game or soccer game is not true basketball or true soccer because the referees do not control the game early on and let the physical play get out of hand. Then such games become, as I said before, football games without pads or helmets. When referees do their job appropriately, that is when the games are enjoyable and when you see the games go as they should, without violations of the rules of the game allowed or without physical or violent play being allowed. And when you leave the site of the game, that is when you have no thoughts about the officiating. Good referees or umpires do not call attention to themselves and do everything they can to preserve the integrity of the sport for which they are officiating a game.