Last night, at the seven-minute timeout of Illinois' Round of 32 game against Miami (Fla.) last night, I felt something that's extremely rare for a sports fan: Peace.
My beloved Illini weren't favored to beat Miami, but they were up by one and, more important, they had played one of their best games of the season. Illinois' 3-point-heavy approach often leads to aesthetically displeasing basketball, even in victory, so this game, which featured ferocious team defense on Miami's Shane Larkin and some truly inventive drives to the basket by Illinois' Brandon Paul, had me downright giddy. It didn't even matter whether the Illini won or lost, not really: They had played their hearts out, and I was proud of them. Nothing could ruin this game, not even a loss. That never happens. I felt terrific.
Then something ruined the game.
* * *
I love referees and umpires. Honestly, I do. My grandfather was a devoted youth league umpire and taught me the importance of rule, and law, and order: It doesn't matter what is fair, it matters what the umpire says is fact. His (or her) word must be accepted as absolute truth. Otherwise, there is chaos, madness -- anarchy. Umpires and referees existed in those years only in part to make correct calls; the other, arguably larger, part of their job was to project authority. Someone had to be in charge.
We don't feel that way about umpires and referees anymore. They are not the law now; they stand in the way of law. Technological changes have made it obvious, immediately, when a call has been missed, but it's more than just that; we've been able to point out egregious officiating errors for several decades now. No, we are a wonkier populace now, people who believe that the true nature of order is objective, empirical fact. You see this in every aspect of American culture, from politics (Nate Silver vs. the flat-earthers) to sports (the sabermetric revolution) to entertainment (the rise of box office data and the fall of critical discourse). We believe that we in fact have all the tools to discover some sort of objective truth, and we demand that they be used. Umpires and referees aren't arbiters anymore; they're middle managers. They are standing in between the workers and the means of production.
And we hate them for it. We attach self-aggrandizing motives to them, we call them corrupt and incompetent, we assume they have no professional integrity. It is easy to scream at the people in the middle, the ones with no obvious allegiance and therefore able to be easily twisted into whatever form we need to justify our anger. These are men and women with hard, tough jobs, traveling from city to city to be screamed at by tens of thousands of people, doing it for modest pay and a legitimate love of their sport. (I recommend reading Bruce Weber's "As They See 'Em" for a good look into the real, sorta sad world of professional umpires.) None of that matters, because what they are trained to do is not what we want them to do anymore. They make calls to the best of their ability, but that's just not good enough today. So we destroy them. We blame them for everything. They are the last remnants of a generational change, and they're going to have to pay the price. They are not the problem, but we treat them as if they were.
It is sad and wrong and undeniable. I feel terrible for refs and umps, all the time.
Well, almost all the time.
* * *
Watching the GIF of the call this morning makes my stomach turn. It's a horrible call, one so obviously wrong that it's sort of surprising another ref, one who even barely saw it, didn't come in and overturn it. (Even Miami admitted they caught a break.) Now, that call didn't cost Illinois the game; every sporting event features hundreds of little moments that affect the outcome in tiny ways, adding up to paint the whole picture. The real reason Miami won this game was Shane Larkin's ridiculous 3-pointer in the final two minutes. (If that guy were taller than 5-11, we're talking about him like he's the next Chris Paul.)
But this call was crucial. It gave Miami back the ball with the lead and allowed them to be in a position where all the Hurricanes had to do was hit free throws to win the game. They hit them, and they deserve credit for that. But it shouldn't have come down to that. This had been a wonderful game, on both sides, possession for possession the entire second half. We all deserved to find out how it turned out, settled by the players on the floor, the way they'd been doing it all game. We deserved to have someone win, someone lose, and that would be that.
We didn't get that chance. (Iowa State fans are feeling the same way today.) It was the one thing that could ruin this game. Losing on a mistaken call is the worst way to lose. I honestly wonder if I'd have been happier if the Illini had been blown out. A replay fixes that call. Robot refs fix that call. The "human element" doesn't make me feel any better, about anything.
Let's not forget, though: This thought process is inhuman. We think that sports, if you take out the mistakes that umpires and referees make, will somehow become more efficient, more objectively correct, more just. One of the reasons I love sports is because there are clear winners and losers; if my team wins I am happy, and if they lose I am sad. There's so little in life that perfectly clear.
But I'm kidding myself. That's not what sports are, and not what they ever were. They are messy and complicated and confusing. That pain I'm feeling this morning, that sense that justice has not been done, that something has been taken away from me, that I have been deprived of something I deserve … that's life. I'll remember this game a lot longer than I'll have remembered a three-point loss because of a Shane Larkin shot. It's not right. It's not the way we live now. But it's sort of what sports exist to give us. We watch so that we can feel. And I'm certainly doing a lot of feeling this morning.