Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wednesday Writings About Refereeing: Part I

Note: This is the first installment of a Wednesday-only series I'll run this fall. I'll publish an op-ed as it relates to refereeing within the high school and collegiate footprint from the Great Lakes.


The need for impartial game officials was born on the first road trip a team ever made to an opponent’s field or facility that featured a crucial call going against the visitors. Inevitably, the visitors returned home with a resolve to not let that happen to them at their own facility, and the evolution of the term “homer official” was born. When was this? College football started at Rutgers in 1869. Professional baseball traces back to the 1850s in upstate New York. As broadcasting Hall-Of-Famer Ernie Harwell recalls, "Back then, they just grabbed a regular ole' guy out of the stands to umpire, so you can see what they thought of umpires then (laughing)."

The perception that coaches despise us when we’re perceived to be wrong holds some truth, but that's a false truth, too. Many a night a coach has told me our crew did what we needed to do, and a healthy portion of those statements come from the coach that the call went against. When the emotion of the game has dissipated, it’s not uncommon for a coach to admit the call was right or the officials handled the night’s business correctly and professionally. In fact, it’s the very rare night a coach goes sideways and ballistic over a particular call or the efforts of one or all officials. Most nights, at all levels of officiating in America, end rather conspicuously.

The officiating industry, to that end, is much like the airport: Not much thought or consideration is put towards it...until something goes wrong.

That wrong usually includes an official’s decision that had an immediate effect on the outcome of a game -- an official’s worst nightmare. It’s usually here that the statements of mistrust, new training, new officials, new everything and an overhaul of the way government governs itself is usually mandated from the players and coaches inside an angry locker room. These statements are sometimes gobbled up by an eager corps of press, who rush back with quotes and sound bites of the disdain to help describe the night’s outcome.

However, most coaches admit that officials get it right the great majority of the time, and if they're correct, what’s the problem with officiating as is? Today, technology, expectations and money are driving a new level of perfection. Television is no longer reserved for major college football, and replay slows the game to a frame-by-frame crawl in the pursuit of getting the call right. Combine this with the demand at every college to win the league title and play in the Rose Bowl with the insatiable taste of money generated by a well-to-do bowl appearance and you've got the collegiate football scene in a fishbowl.

The 2006 major college football season provided an excellent example of this. Today, the Big Ten assignments are doled out on a month-by-month basis because of what happened after the entire schedule was culled and distributed in the spring prior to that season.

The officials assigned to the '06 Ohio State - Michigan game were assigned based on merit, not addresses. Halfway through the '06 season, the 800-pound elephant in the room was the potential of an undefeated Michigan going down to Columbus to play undefeated OSU. Michigan started the season No. 14; Ohio State was the preseason No. 1. After Michigan defeated Penn State, it was obvious the Wolverines were going to earn the No. 2 spot in the rankings and march into The Game by defeating Iowa, Northwestern, Ball State and Indiana before the annual, season-ending clash with the Buckeyes.

While the Wolverines were grinding their teeth effectively on their opponents, Ohio State was ripping theirs in pieces. Whereas the Wolverines defeated Northwestern 17-3, Ohio State annihilated the Wildcats 44-0. Michigan handled rival Michigan State 31-13 at Michigan Stadium; Ohio State mauled the Spartans 38-7 in Spartan Stadium. The Buckeyes had defeated Michigan in three of the past four games but this was being billed as the new “Game Of The Century”, and the Big Ten acted accordingly.

Treating the game as a Bowl game, the league replaced any officials on the game with any significant ties to either state. That meant some officials, having been assigned to “The Game Of The Century” before it ever was titled as such, lost the prestigious assignment without so much as having made a wrong step, much less a wrong call.

That’s the climate of officiating today. While the referee isn't wrong first, the public at large is looking more actively for those 'wrongs'. In college football, the officials have one decided advantage over every other official in American sports in that regard: Every play is replayed. Although they’re at the mercy of someone in the booth to determine if their call is correct or needs to be overturned, at least there’s the possibility of walking off the field without being wrong when something major happens. That’s not the case in baseball, basketball or hockey. Baseball, in fact, after stating unequivocally that replay will not be a part of it’s umpiring tools anytime soon, now claims video appeal will soon be instituted before the season is over.

Therefore, officiating has become much easier, right...or is it? It's easier as long as you embrace the following edicts: Be right but never be wrong. Be damned if you’re wrong when you should have been right, especially if video says so. Yet it's the truthful official who knows the training, requirements, rules study and access to video of games worked have increased dramatically. It’s much easier to get better and embrace the new mechanics and ideals of officiating.

So know you know a thing or two about being an official -- feel like putting on the stripes and making a call or two?

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