Relationships with referees are as tense as ever, but where does our pursuit for justice become entitlement?
Are professional athletes – and their fans – like preschoolers?
They play games, they throw fits, they fight, they can be petty — and they are incredibly concerned with injustice.
In a This American Life podcast released in April, host Ira Glass peeled back the layers on what makes people so distressed by minor injustices. The episode, titled “No Fair!”, begins with the implementation of what the hosts call a “tattle-phone” into a Pre-K classroom. It’s a large, red phone with an outgoing message: “Hey there, you’ve reached the tattle phone. OK, tell me what happened after the beep. Tell me the whole story.”
The messages reveal what goes on in a four year old’s brain — and it is adorable. ‘My friend did this,’ ‘my friend did that.’ ‘so-and-so kicked me,’ ‘so-and-so lied to me.’ Small, trivial injustices for the outside world… but for children?
“It is everything,” said Kathleen Jones, a Pre-K teacher and purveyor of the tattle phone. “And rules. They live by the rules. They can sit down to play a game and that whole playtime will be nothing but arguing about the rules. And then there’s no playtime left, and they feel good about it.”
Journalist and author Michael Lewis, who joins “No Fair!” in Act One, described this concern with injustice as a growing phenomenon in America today. “Americans don’t trust the refs,” he said. “In all walks of life. They don’t trust their impartiality.”
And not necessarily just the ones who call close-out fouls on James Harden’s three’s, or who call balls and strikes or pass interference, but the refs who control our systems, who make the rules.
“Police, Supreme Court justices, journalists, the people who regulate the banks and Wall Street and student loans, the people setting medical costs, judges,” Lewis said. “So many people feel the system is rigged. I mean, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both ran on that. So many people feel that […] it’s not fair.”
And what do we do when it’s not fair? We want to make it right. We want to pick up the tattle phone or open up social media and tell the world. And that may not be a bad thing when it comes to our inevitably unjust world. But in sports, at what point do we step back and check ourselves?
In February, The Aggie profiled some of the worst blown calls in sports history. The article came in the aftermath of a missed pass interference call in the 2019 NFC Championship game that likely cost the New Orleans Saints a trip to the Super Bowl. In the days after, Saints fans screamed injustice to the point of filing a lawsuit against the NFL on behalf of Saints season ticket holders. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton said the team would “probably never get over it.”
Or, again, just a few weeks ago, when an ESPN report revealed that the Houston Rockets audited game seven of the 2018 Western Conference finals, claiming that NBA referees cost them a championship (and an estimated $20 million in revenue).
People deserve that which is due. Certainly. That’s justice. And in any sport, fairness should always reign supreme. But the line between justice and entitlement — between what’s a foul and what isn’t — is becoming increasingly unclear. And this mentality is seeping into the cracks of all levels of sport.
It’s something third-year managerial economics major Edrees Yaqubi, who officiated both intramural basketball and football at UC Davis, admitted is becoming a dangerous trend.
“Look, man, everyone wants a scapegoat,” Yaquibi said. “But people are looking at the game differently. It still comes down to the player, you still gotta score, a player still gotta make his shots. The calls are becoming everything.”
As a youth basketball coach now, Yaquibi understands how toxic it can be for the game when the focus switches to the refs.
“They have all the power,” Yaquibi said. “At the end of the day, it’s their game. But as the coach, I gotta tell the kids now, ‘don’t even worry about the refs.’ When you’re looking to the refs like that, you’re putting your future in someone else’s hands — you lose morale off of that. If you’re always looking for a foul call and you don’t get it, it drags you down.”
It’s a fine line, and one that leagues across the world are trying to toe carefully as technology develops and scrutiny heightens. Almost every major American sport has instituted some form of replay review. But the NBA, often on the forefront of such progress, is the first to take aim at transparency. The day after a close game, the NBA publicly releases what is known as a two-minute-report, a review of all of the calls within the last two minutes of a game. Its aim is transparency and accountability, but there is a degree of dilemma between following the rules and preserving the integrity of sport — of competition.
Last year, the Warriors’ Kevin Durant called out the NBA for its approach. “I think it’s bulls— that the NBA throw the refs under the bus like that,” Durant said. “Just move on, man. You don’t throw the refs under the bus like that […] What about the first quarter? What about the second quarter, third quarter?”
Despite the league trying to move in a direction of clarity, Durant presents a valid point. Who’s to say that a call in the first quarter doesn’t change the outcome of the game as much as a call in the last two minutes? It’s impossible to calculate how one single call can impact emotion or momentum or any of the other countless intangibles, whenever it occurs. To even consider those alternate realities may be damaging to the fabric of the game.
In 2010, when MLB umpire Jim Joyce infamously missed a call that would have secured Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game, Joyce’s family received death threats from Tigers fans, and he needed a police escort to get back to his hotel. But the following day, Tigers fans welcomed Joyce to the field with a standing ovation, and he wiped tears from his eyes as Galarraga handed him the team’s lineup card prior to first pitch.
“It’s the human element,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said at the time. “We all make mistakes.”
But when TVs capture a missed call late in a game that costs your team a chance at a championship, or a young pitcher a perfect game, it’s hard not to reach for that large, red phone.
OK, tell me what happened after the beep. Tell me the whole story.
The whole story is that referees are human. Regardless of how we treat them, they are intermeshed in the DNA of sport as much as players and coaches are. They bring protection, stability and balance to what would otherwise devolve into chaos. And like the rest of us, sometimes they mess up.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to hold refs (and ourselves) to a high standard, or that we can’t be upset when a call doesn’t go our way. But we also can’t expect absolute justice, or always leap for the tattle phone when we are wronged. And we shouldn’t sterilize sports to that point either, because where is the joy in perfection, in predictability?
Even Galarraga recognizes this reality. He and Jim Joyce co-wrote a book two years later. Its title? “Nobody’s Perfect”.
Written by: Carson Parodi — firstname.lastname@example.org