A protocol for referee-baiting

I’ve been officiating soccer and basketball for a few years now, so I think I’m qualified to offer a few recommendations to fans who enjoy screaming at officials.

First, let me assure you that I have no expectation of rehabilitating the great mass of unruly fans who regularly engage in ref-baiting. Loud verbal criticism of officials happens all over the world, and there’s a long list of incidents where soccer referees were even physically attacked back to the late 19th century. So yelling at the official has deep roots that pre-date these coarsened times.

It’s easy to see the officials as anonymous striped shirts, so when things go wrong for your side, blaming the ref is a pretty facile reaction. But it’s unlikely the referee woke up, showered, and, while shaving, thought “Hmmm. I think I’ll screw the home team today, keep things interesting.”

Now I don’t mean to make excuses; we are getting paid for our effort, after all. But I know that I’ve missed calls even after diligently studying the rule books, working hard to get into position and focusing on the play when some kid runs through my field of vision at the wrong moment. I can’t call what I didn’t see. You don’t have that issue from the stands. Unless you have the guy in your row who gets up in the middle of a play to go for nachos. (Or to address the inevitable outcome of nachos. Not to be indelicate.)

Having said all that, I would like to make a few observations for your consideration before you attend your next sporting event. Maybe you’ve already thought of them, but I think a lot of people haven’t.

  1. Don’t yell about a violation unless you’ve actually read the rule

A friend of mine was ejected from a third-grade kickball game for arguing a rule that he had made no effort to understand. He just thought it was wrong that a kid on the other team did something. You might think “Well, that guy’s just an idiot.” (Which would be a reasonable assumption, considering that he’s a friend of mine.) But it goes on all the time. Whenever I’m working a basketball game and a shot is tipped three or four times in the lane, somebody in the stands will start screaming “THREE SECONDS! THREE SECONDS!”  (The three-second count resets on every shot, sir.)

It’s not that this comment distracts me. If I even hear it – being focused on other things at the moment – I think it’s kind of funny. But somebody sitting close to that guy probably does know the actual rule, and he has to sit there trying to tune out this loudmouth yelling about something he doesn’t understand. So don’t be that guy.

2) Please be creative

I actually kind of appreciate comments that I haven’t heard before, especially if there are clever-ish references to current events or incidents in the sporting world. Which excludes tired remarks like this:

“CALL IT BOTH WAYS!” – somewhere there’s a television sports announcer who first led fans to believe that a difference in the number of fouls called means one team is getting the shaft. I’ve never seen a game where two teams played with the exact same level of physicality. If two teams have the same number of fouls, it’s a coincidence. Don’t argue based on a disparity in the number of calls; it’s almost inevitable.

“HEY REF, WHERE’D YOU BUY THAT SHIRT?” – online at Honig’s. The same place you could buy it, even without passing a rules test, like I did. Next question.

“THAT’S A LATE WHISTLE!” – which is like saying there are blue unicorns on the court. There’s no such thing. Having a “patient whistle” – waiting for the play to end and taking a moment to process what you saw – is a sign of a good official. Some rules actually require the referee to wait for the outcome of the play. In soccer, there’s even a mechanic (arm motion) for “play on”, which means “that may have been a foul, but I’m not going to call it and take away a competitive advantage gained by the fouled player.” (“Play on” being a much more succinct definition.)

3) Think about the message your tone and comments convey

Yeah, you’re leaving the game at the end, and you’ll probably never meet this guy you’ve been screaming at. (Though I admit this is something I fantasize about. Standing face to face with that guy and watching him try to avoid eye contact.) But if there are kids around and you’re constantly yelling about how wrong the ref is and how he doesn’t know what he’s doing, how do you expect them to react to other authority figures? Parents, teachers, bosses? So you’re teaching them self-destructive behavior.

Or maybe you’re teaching them to be a bully. They can sense that the referee is somehow restrained from blowing his whistle, coming up in the stands, and screaming in your face. So it’s OK to yell criticism at people if they can’t respond? Got it.

Finally, if you’re the type that likes to yell at refs, I challenge you to try it sometime. A lot of leagues are desperate for officials.Volunteer at a rec league or the Y, just to see what it’s like. Believe me, it’s harder than it looks.     



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