x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

It's official – referees are human as well

They may be totalitarian on the field, but referees and umpires are as fallible as the rest of us.

The referee Lance Easley, centre, was all over the news after making what he believes was the right decision in an NFL game. Stephen Brashear / AP Photo
The referee Lance Easley, centre, was all over the news after making what he believes was the right decision in an NFL game. Stephen Brashear / AP Photo

Of the many fascinating encounters the writer Simon Kuper has in his vast footballing travelogue Football Against the Enemy, one of the most intriguing is with a Russian journalist Vsevolod Kukushkin.

Kuper, young, not Russian and having never until that point paid a bribe in his life, had just read an interview with the coach of a local side in which, unprompted, the coach said he bribed referees regularly and that he was hardly the only one who did.

Kuper, not shocked as much as curious, asks Kukushkin about it. Kukushkin tells him that, in the 1970s, one Russian referee became famous for not taking bribes. He was so rich, teams could not afford him.

Then, as he tries to explain to Kuper why it isn't a big deal, Kukushkin recalls a story told to him when he was younger by an older journalist: "Bad referees give penalty kicks or offsides, but good referees know how to stop an attack while it is still in midfield."

It is the kind of reflexive cynicism, buffering you from life's ever extrapolating nastiness, that can only have been hammered into the soul by years of hackery.

There is something really appealing about that approach, to assume the worst from humans simply – and especially – because they are humans.

And it is a useful one to revisit periodically, such as after a weekend in which not only the errors of those in charge of officiating sport but also something of their character is suddenly brought into sharp focus. Because it does occasionally need reminding that referees or umpires are human beings, with the caveat that they are in a very peculiar profession.

Think about this. Once a week, maybe twice, sometimes for five days a week, these men are given the kind of absolute authority that nobody, not even dictators, can expect to have any more.

They are in temporary charge of the destiny of many adults more directly than chief executives; indirectly, they can influence that of millions more.

They can be, and are, questioned but their word remains absolute, so that they are right even if they are wrong and their decision final, even if, within minutes of making it they can sense that they got it very wrong.

And what's more, those questioning them can be punished for the act of questioning itself.

Periodically then, their sense of self cannot help but become naturally inflated, or at least unnaturally affected and over a longer period that can touch the head in a funny way. Sometimes the effects are clear to see: if you have so much control over proceedings, why will you not be susceptible to corruption like those Russian referees, or Italian ones, and even recently, cricket umpires (and not so recent as well, with allegations about corrupt umpires rife during the first match-fixing scandal in the late 1990s)?

Cricket, where the umpire is burdened not just judicially but also with an unnecessary moral guardianship, has seen what can happen to such men; sometimes, as in the case of the overly righteous Darrel Hair and the overly familiar Daryl Harper, the answer is that it is not usually very pleasant.

And if you had been following the affair of Lance Easley you probably knew that.

Easley was the replacement referee who, in September, made one of the most infamous – and likely incorrect – calls in NFL history to hand Seattle a last-gasp win over Green Bay.

His first public defence of the decision came through TMZ, the celebrity news website, revealing something of how he saw himself.

Soon after a senior reporter with TIME magazine tweeted that Easley's media adviser was telling him to seek money for interviews.

That is one of the reasons technology such as cricket's Decision Review System (DRS) and super slow motion and HD broadcasts are so good, because they become natural bulwarks from the more delusionary ideas these arbitrators may begin to develop about their own authority; the DRS provides almost immediate correction and very public accountability.

It is the nature of public life that Mark Clattenburg – the English Premier League referee accused of racially abusing two Chelsea players on Sunday – probably would not have paid for the very public mistakes he made but that the more private remarks (in a public setting) he may or may not have made could cost him his job.

They are transgressions of an entirely different order no doubt and not worth comparing, but taken together make for a very forceful example of the humanness of those who inhabit these pretty artificial and influential roles.


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