Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A world without referees

Take me out of the ballgame.

The referee is as much a part of sports these days as the players are. In every sport, whether it's baseball, football, or even boxing, the referee is there as the voice of reason, the enforcer of the rules, the maintainer of the peace. They often get more air time than the players as they explain rules, hand out penalties, and intervene in fights. But what would happen if we just got rid of referees? Would the leagues fall into complete chaos? Would players turn into wild animals and beat each other into oblivion? Would the modern day arena hark back to the gladiatorial era? I highly doubt it.

We've all played some form of "pick-up" sports before, and if not sports, some form of game, and there's an intrinsic human element to playing games that simultaneously establishes and enforces rules. It's more cultural, more embedded in our human nature, than I think people give it credit for, and that's because we've become so accustomed to having someone else (the "authority figure") tell us what we're supposed to do and how we're supposed to play that we feel like nothing can happen fairly without their presence. But players define rules, they have for generations of our evolution, and when rules are broken in a player-created game, there is always a penalty.

Children are masters at creating and enforcing rules. When a group of kids play freeze tag, there's an understanding between all participants of what the rules are and what a broken rule looks like. If a child tags another and he doesn't freeze (gasp), a nuclear meltdown occurs in the suddenly "Lord of the Flies" community, and that child is either kicked out of the game forever by his fellow taggers, sent home weeping to explain his indiscretion to his mother, or he's temporarily banished, locked in a longer-than-natural freeze, by the horde. It's a communal decision, not that all communal decisions are going to be correct (majority may rule, but it's rarely right), but when it comes to games, that type of enforcement works. The same thing happens for adults too. If we're driving and someone cuts us off, we honk our horn to shame the other person for breaking the understood rules of the game. If someone cuts in line, everyone behind that person will enforce proper behavior and send the invader to the back of the line, where he/she obviously belongs. We establish and enforce rules every single day, so why the authority in sports? Why the referees?

The obvious answer is that, while people inherently define and follow rules, people also inherently cheat, and without a neutral third party there to observe and watch for intentional rule-breaking, it can go unseen and unpunished and have an unfair impact on the outcome of the sport. And sports are all about money, and when that much money is on the line, it's almost as if every owner and player collectively agrees: "There's too much to lose to not cheat, so you better disincentivize it from a higher authority." But people cheat regardless of the rules, in both life and in sports. Does everyone come to a complete stop at a stop sign? Of course not, we bend the rules in our favor daily, and so do athletes, even with the presence of a referee. The only difference is that when there is no referee, the players will naturally even the score or hand out a punishment befitting the offense.

I can't imagine a group of NFL athletes arguing over a pass interference call or a disputed touchdown, but maybe that's because we -- fans, coaches, players -- are all so used to letting someone else define the outcomes and mediate the disputes that it's hard to conceive of the alternative. We don't know what it would be like if the players were left up to their own devices, and, based on how they continually act even with an authority figure there to police their actions, it's easy to say how much worse it would be. But there would be a certain evolution that would occur. It would have to occur. A different version of that sport would organically grow into something new, something unique. In the NFL, the players that couldn't follow the rules would be ostracized, the nitpicky-nature of refereeing would disappear, as would the chain-link measurements and the precisely-controlled maintenance of game play and game clock. It would naturally sort itself out, and, in the end, I think a better sport would come about, something more akin to a hyper-speed rugby than the jerky, clumsy NFL.

The same thing would happen in baseball too. The whole concept of a "strikezone" would probably go away, and another version of pitching and hitting would emerge. Something that was more definitive, more abrupt; something that would force action as opposed to inaction on the part of the batter. Players would come to know what was and wasn't an out and wouldn't need to appeal to authority to sell their story. Baseball players are notorious for arguing the strikezone and getting ejected from the game. But that's because they aren't responsible to their fellow players, they can focus their disagreements on the "other," instead of being accountable to the other players and the fans to keep the game moving.

The NBA is by far the worst sport when it comes to players complaining to officials. And many times, a player will be able to woo an official simply as a result of his incessant whining. Has that ever worked in a pick-up game? "You know what, you're right, you do deserve some free throws." Hell no. Things are self-policed. You know when you fouled someone and you raise your hand. If it's disputed, you just take it at half-court and start again. No free throws, no authority. Just a communal understanding of "this is slowing our game down, so just take it at the top of the key and start playing again." That's how you play a game.

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