There are two types of criticism. One is constructive, encourages betterment and fosters healthy growth. The other is destructive, encourages self-hatred and fosters burning resentment. I call the second one “Dad.”
And while I like to think that my father is the exclusive proprietor of captiousness, there is no doubt that the award for the most ill-intended critique goes not to paternal guilt-trips, but to sports fans’ “criticism” of referees.
You’ve heard it all before — phrases resounding throughout stadiums, such as “These refs are blind!” “My grandma makes better calls than that!” and my personal favorite, “Come on ref, people have gotten pregnant with less contact!”
Whether it’s the big leagues or tee ball, countless expletives and epithets have been hurled and shouted in living rooms and sports arenas across the globe, all while our zebra-striped professionals attempt to remain stoic and impartial arbiters.
It boils down to this — referees are thrust into thankless and impossibly difficult jobs in which minor mistakes are amplified and success goes understated. And as sports fans, we are complicit, if not responsible, for why this is the case. We cheer for the noble manager as he rails against the oppressive umpire, we root for the player who speaks out against “unfair” calls, and we consistently avoid accepting the reality of our team’s failures by scapegoating the identity-less official. In short, we are the problem.
All of this is not to say that referees are without blame. Certainly, officials are responsible for some of the most infamous moments in sports history, such as the “replacement ref” controversy, Michael Jordan’s Game 6 push-off or the 1972 Olympic basketball fiasco. There is no shortage of poorly officiated moments one can pull from.
Though referees make a plethora of mistakes in every game and in every sport, this fact should not fuel the vitriol we so richly release at every blow of the whistle — instead, it should jump-start a dialogue on how officiating can be improved. Why wail from the rooftops with claims of rigged games and rule inconsistency when we can create a framework for a better and more consistent tomorrow?
Change is not impossible. The G League (once D League) for the NBA experimented with a four-referee system; FIFA implemented video assistant referees; even the NFL approved a change to allow challenges of past interference calls. And while these changes have not resolved the overarching issue of officiating in these sports, they demonstrate that there are avenues for improvement. Technological changes, increased accountability and a willingness to reform can guide sports to a more uniform and fair future. It is up to us, as fans, to lead it there.
Perhaps our better angels will be shouted down by the cynicism and rancor of toxic sports fandoms. Fanatics such as myself may continue to do what we have always done: irrationally fluster and curse at the television screen until we are blue in the face and red in the heart. And there is a good chance I’ll still yell, “Get your eyes checked!” at referees during Cal games.
But there’s a flicker of hope that one day, sports fandom will be better. One day, players, fans and league officials might, if given the chance, establish an environment that seeks to ameliorate officiating instead of denigrating it. One day, winning and losing could be exclusively decided by the quality of play from both teams.
Until then, the least we can do is be more sympathetic and give referees more leeway. And if my own experience with my father, who was a referee for many years, taught me anything, it is that people make mistakes and that the only criticisms that matter are constructive ones.