Hey ref, you suck!
Ever been to a live sporting event and not heard that at one point or another? Maybe it wasn’t said just like that, or maybe the word ump (or judge, or stripes, or Dick Bavetta) was used in place of ref, but the sentiment was shared. Here’s the thing: The ref does suck. Refs, in general, suck.
They have different degrees of sucking, sure. And to be fair, I would in all likelihood suck way more than they do. But still, they are humans, and humans often lack good judgment. And in sports, where the ref’s decisions impact everything, sometimes those poor judgments ruin everything. It’s inevitable: Objective rules are treated with subjective judgments, bias is exposed, and brain farts happen. And it stinks (just ask the Pittsburgh Pirates, the English Men’s Soccer team, or the 2002 SacramentoKings).
Refs suck because humans make errors, and sometimes those errors are (unnecessarily) unfair. To better understand the fallibility of referees, let’s take a look at experts of another field: Film critics.
I was recently meandering through Rotten Tomatoes, and I noticed that invariably there are almost always people who give films a rotten score. Even if the film is a bona fide classic there is almost always at least one critic who gives the film a bad enough score to deem it rotten.
Curious by this, I decided to dig deeper to see who these critics were that hated films the rest of us love. I found that you can see a summary of each individual critic’s reviews. And then things got very interesting. Here is a list of critics I found and some—shall we say—unique judgments they have made. Remember, rotten means bad and fresh means good. So if a critic rates one film rotten and another fresh, he is saying (whether he means to or not) the fresh film is better.
- Critic: Rob Humanick
- Judgments: Gave “Shawshank Redemption” a rotten and “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family” a fresh. He called Shawshank “obnoxious and trite.”
- My thoughts: For this judgment, Robby should be put in Shawshank.
- Critic: Jeremy Heilman
- Judgments: Gave “Toy Story 3” a rotten and “The Proposal” a fresh. He claims TS3 is an unnecessary sequel.
- My thoughts: Apparently Proposal was the first chick flick he has ever seen.
- Critic: Luke Y. Thompson
- Judgments: Gave “127 Hours” and “King’s Speech” a rotten and “Spice World” (the movie about the Spice Girls) a fresh. He called SW “GENIUS” (all caps his doing, not mine).
- My thoughts: I’m going to go ahead and say Luke himself is not a GENIUS.
- Critic: Ken Hanke
- Judgments: Gave “It’s a Wonderful Life” a rotten and “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” a fresh. His reasoning for giving Prince of Persia a fresh was that there was an ostrich race in it.
- My thoughts: Well, at least his judgments are based on sound reasoning.
- Critic: Vincent Canby
- Judgments: Gave “The Godfather, Part II” a rotten and “Grease” a fresh.
- My thoughts: Hahahahahaha …
Now you may be saying to yourself, yeah, but film critiquing is subjective. Point taken. While that is more often than not true, I believe there are limits to that notion. Roger Ebert had something worthwhile to say about this:
“I am fond of the story I tell about Gene Siskel. When a so-called film critic defended a questionable review by saying, “after all, it’s opinion,” Gene told him: “There is a point when a personal opinion shades off into an error of fact. When you say ‘The Valachi Papers’ is a better film than ‘The Godfather,’ you are wrong.” Quite true. We should respect differing opinions up to certain point, and then it’s time for the wise to blow the whistle.”
At a certain point, a judgment is simply wrong. And when film critics have hours to take in a film, and many more hours to consider and give their ruling, it can be startling that they can still be so wrong sometimes. (And somebody needs to call them out on their stupidity: Hey critic, you suck!) But it does show you how little we can trust human judgments.
Critics and refs aren’t perfect comps, but they both help illustrate the weakness of human judgments. It would be very hard to replace critics, and they have an established (albeit minimal) role in the film industry. But refs are usually a critical part of sports, and while they may be irreplaceable, there are certainly ways to minimize their role (and minimize their damage).
Referees don’t have hours to make their judgments like critics do. They have fractions of seconds. That’s it. A play happens and BOOM! they must immediately make a judgment on what just happened (or didn’t happen). Try to do that sometime. Find a two hour block of time today and make judgments immediately (in fractions of a second) and see how many mistakes you make. There’s a decent chance that during that time you’ll offend someone, or get fired from your job, or get in a car accident, or you happen to be Mel Gibson. I mean is it any wonder refs suck?
As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book “Blink”, humans make split-second decisions based on subconscious biases all the time, whether we acknowledge it or not. And no, refs are not exempt from this (However, computers are).
But even more startling than the odds working against refs is the unwillingness of certain sports’ governing bodies to remedy this obvious dilemma. The two most notable organizations are MLB and FIFA.
In baseball, the umpire is expected to make judgments for literally every pitch that is thrown. And yet if you watch a game every umpire seems to have his own (always altering) strike zone. Why? No, seriously, why? There is no reason for it other than way back when (two centuries ago, actually) that’s how it was. Ah, got to love tradition. But it’s not just balls and strikes that umpires are directed to judge, it everything that happens on the field. And when it is obvious that a call was wrong (take last year’s stolen perfect game), what options do the teams or umpires have to make sure the right call was made? None.
In soccer, where so few goals are scored (making them vastly important elements of the game), what options does a team have when a score or other penalty is questioned (think US vs. Slovenia)? None. Again, why?
The technology is there. Look at tennis. If a player questions a line call, they can challenge that call immediately, and a computer can show exactly where the ball hit. Therefore, when a tennis player loses a match, it is almost impossible for them to blame anyone other than themselves, and it impossible for a line judge to ruin the match. Can you imagine how John McEnroe’s career would be different if they used these technologies in his heyday? ….Actually, I think he is the one player whose legacy would have been slighted by this technology. Forget I brought him up.
If baseball and soccer were to use the same computer technologies that tennis uses, both sports would drastically improve their credibility and likability overnight. Strike zones could be permanent, any questionable call could be taken care of fairly, and our exposure to fat men in uniforms would drop drastically. But men run these organizations, and as we’ve seen, men’s judgments suck. In MLB’s case, let’s not forget that they don’t even allow any MLB footage on YouTube (apparently they hate free advertising). And in FIFA’s case, they decided it would be a good idea to have the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (apparently they hate playing their sport with temperatures under 110 degrees). Good call, guys.
The NFL has allowed for certain calls to be challenged for years, using video reviews. And it’s remarkable how often a ref’s call is overturned on the field. There are enough calls overturned that the NFL wouldn’t dare take away replays and challenge flags now. But even football stands to benefit from goal line technology that could help clarify field position. Because even with video review the human eye can only see so much, and one ref’s interpretation of “indisputable evidence” is different than another’s.
(It is worth pointing out that even though there are the occasional bonehead critics, sites like Rotten Tomatoes are using technology to create (generally) very accurate judgments, since with so many reviews their aggregate score usually hits close to the correct mark. Unfortunately, sports refs generally depend on one man’s judgment, as opposed to dozens and dozens of combined opinions.)
So what are the solutions? How can we minimize the human error and maximize accuracy? How can we convince organizations like MLB and FIFA to shape up and embrace technology? Frankly, I don’t know. I just wanted to let my thoughts be known: Hey ref, you suck! You too, critics!
Bryson Kearl is the editor of The Van Gundy. In his spare time he critiques critics. Feel free to critique his critique of critics below.