The replacement/scab referee fiasco in the NFL is over, and as our president might say, it’s a teachable moment for us fans. I think we need to talk about how we treat officials, replacement or otherwise.
The main reason there has been so much blowback against the replacement referees is because they have been terrible. Let me make that clear. But I still can’t help but feel like the noise this time is louder because this is the first time we can put something righteous -- these guys are fakes! That guy was fired by the Lingerie Football League! They’re scabs! -- behind the usual fury we throw at professional officials. We’re going to scream at the real refs as much as we always do. We’re just not going to be able to pretend there’s anybody better.
The age of technology has changed how we interact with our officials, how we perceive them. We now see them as middle managers, people who get in the way of the game, rather than the game’s primary arbiters. Time was, the only way you could figure out whether or not someone was safe or out, or if that pass was interfered with, or that drive was a charge, was because someone wearing a different color than everyone else on the diamond/field/court/ice told us. Now, we may have disagreed with that person -- violently so, with healthy dollops of spittle and dirt -- but that was no way to prove they were wrong. We argued with them because it made us feel better, not because it made a difference.
But this was back when we considered sports more art than science. Those were the days of “kill the umpire” in a facetious sense, the way you saw Saturday Evening Post covers, the umpire and the manager locked in an eternal, essentially affable struggle, Wile E. Coyote and Sam Sheepdog punching their timecards, beating each other up for three hours, then punching out, shaking hands and driving home. But not anymore. Now, we actually want to kill the umpire. Not physically, not as a person, but let there be no doubt: We want him gone.
Almost every sports innovation of the last 10 years seems to exist entirely to make the job of a sports official either irrelevant or, perhaps worse, extremely difficult. Super slo-mo -- or “X-Mo,” which honestly is the stupidest product name I’ve ever heard in my life -- accentuates every nook and cranny on every play, things no human being could possibly detect at real speed. (And even in X-Mo, you still can’t tell half the time.) We now have a strike-zone box that every replay shows after every pitch for the sole purpose of causing us to be angry at an umpire for, I don’t know, not having a multi-million-dollar computer camera in each eyeball, I guess. The first-down line, Hawk-Eye in tennis, ESPN Axis, you name it, and it is there to remind us of the fallibility of the human condition.
It has led us, perhaps inevitably, to consider umpires and referees and officials as this sort of anachronism, this relic of a time when we couldn’t find out, definitely, what the correct call was. They are paper tigers, leaders without any actual power, puppet dictators. They are there just to delay or stand in the way of empirical, irrefutable truth. They are the bad guys. They are standing in the way of progress. We mock them for being drama queens, for wanting attention, for trying to put themselves in the middle of the action instead of staying anonymous and silent, like they’re supposed to. So we destroy them. We make them all our enemies.
The thing is, though: That’s not who these people are. A few years ago, New York Times reporter Bruce Weber wrote a wonderful book called “As They See ‘Em,” in which he interviewed hundreds of umpires, at every level, and even attempted to become an umpire himself. In the book, the umpires are somewhat lonely, overworked, beleaguered but totally relatable men (and women) who are willing to put everything in their lives aside because they love the games so much. They take their jobs seriously, on an almost sacred level. The rest of the world might not see them as the one thing standing between organized, noble sport and madness, chaos … but they do. We scream at umpires for being human, for not being robots, because robots would do a better job. (And I agree: In a theoretically perfect universe that doesn’t exist and probably never will, they would.) We yell because we know they could do better. But people can always do better. That doesn’t mean they ever will.
We are a culture, today, that has grown to distrust authority, the people who have always claimed to have the knowledge and wisdom to rule us, but are unable to prove it. Umpires are not what they were. But we blame them for more than that.
I’ve told this story before, in my last book, but it bears repeating here: My late grandfather, Dennis Dooley, was a renowned umpire in Moweaqua, Illinois, for decades, in the ol’ Connie Mack League. He was an old army man with a buzz cut, ripped abs and dog tags around his neck. He was Authority, in essence, every kid in Moweaqua knew Mr. Dooley was not to be questioned. Grandpa told me a story to show how he umpired games. A kid slid into home plate, and Grandpa called him out. The kid jumped up and yelled, “I was safe!” Grandpa stood over him and said, calmly: “No. You were out. I said you were out. Therefore, you’re out. By definition.”
Not anymore, Grandpa. I’m sort of glad you’re not here to see this. Now there would be a dad from down Route 51 in Assumption, filming you with his iPhone, screaming, “Robot umpires! Robot umpires!” at you as you walk to your car after the game, demanding you watch the play again. He doesn’t care what you say: That kid was safe. And he can prove it.
* * *
For the record, my grandfather would have never been some scab. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.