EDITORIAL: Thoughts from the sports desk – The Integrity of referees by Ross DuBray
by Ross DuBray
Refereeing has got to be one of the worst jobs in the world. I know I wouldn’t want to do it. You have to make game-deciding split-second decisions. You spend a lot of time on the road often traveling to a game from a great distance two or three nights a week. The pay isn’t great. Refereeing is often thankless, and you’re required to have superpowers. Superpowers like X-ray vision, so you can see everyone and everything on the court all at once to make the right call. No matter what, though, somebody is not going to like your call. You get booed, you get yelled at, and you get offers for free glasses. It’s not a very fun job.
So why do people choose to referee?
I assume it’s for the love of the game.
Though I didn’t play high school basketball, there is something very pure about basketball that I love. You have ten players out on the court testing each other’s skills, trying to outplay the other team; and you have two coaches engaging in a game of chess for 32 minutes. Now with any sport or competition, you have rules to follow to protect players from getting hurt and also to prevent a team from cheating to gain an advantage. Thus, referees are given the charge to ensure fair play for both teams so that both teams get a fair shake at victory. What happens though when the refs that have been given that charge fail in their capacity to ensure fair play?
On Saturday night, the District 11A Championship was held in Ft. Pierre between the Cheyenne Eagle Butte Braves and the Mobridge-Pollock Tigers. Fans from both towns were treated to a textbook classic matchup between two rival squads, whose history and rivalry is as deep and intense as any in the state. Each team had bested the other once in the season, and this was the rubber match so to speak with the championship on the line. Now in a game like this between two rival teams, it’s going to be intense, emotions are going to be high, and it’s going to be a physical contest. Fouls are going to be committed by both teams; it’s just the nature of the game. This would be a tough game to ref. You’d want to let the teams play, but you also need to protect the players from themselves.
So the only way to ref a game like this is to be consistent in the foul calling, what fouls you call for one team you need to call on the other end of the court on the other team when they commit the same foul. At the end of the game, if the refs were consistent and honest in their foul calling, the contest would be won based on talent and nothing else. That victory came from a true battle of skills and that one team outplayed the other would be the ultimate outcome. The losing team, though it would sting, could walk away with their head held high knowing they’d given it their all but were beat fair and square.
However, at the end of the game, when one team has more than twice as many fouls as the other (37 compared to 16), and one team is on the free throw line four times more than the other team (48 compared to 12), one has to wonder about the consistency of the fouls called by the referees in that game. Anyone looking at a box score without seeing the game would immediately wonder about the lopsided number of fouls and the number of free throws taken by each team. If you’re at the game and see the inconsistency of these calls happen in front of your eyes over and over, you have to wonder what bias or prejudice the refs might have against a certain team and why they aren’t calling it both ways.
One really wonders when you consider this year’s statistics. In the first matchup between the two schools, Mobridge-Pollock won 58-52. Mobridge-Pollock finished with 13 fouls, C-EB 18 fouls, a pretty balanced game. In the second matchup, C-EB won 74-71. C-EB finished with 22 fouls; Mobridge-Pollock 23 fouls another balanced game.
So what’s the difference in the championship game?
Often I hear, “it was a ref’s game” or “we’d have won if it wasn’t for the refs” or one of many other disparaging statements made about referees. However, I like to give the referees the benefit of the doubt. I want to believe that when a ref calls a foul and makes that split second decision that it is the most honest call he can make based on what he sees and not based on any bias or prejudice. They won’t always get it right, after all they are only human. But when the refs don’t make these calls on both ends time and time again, it not only blemishes the game, but it also takes something away from the players, coaches and fans. It takes away a bit of that joy and purity of the game that they love to play and watch. It cultivates bitterness and resentment. As one coach said, we just want a fair shake. If we play bad and we lose we can live with that; but when we play good, we just want a fair opportunity to win.
Now, just to be clear this isn’t about losing and having sour grapes. It’s part of the cycle, you win and you lose. The question here is fairness.
Is it too much to ask for fair play? After all, players and coaches only want an equal chance to win.
It’s hard enough to play a quality team with their best five on the court, but it’s even harder to have to beat eight.