Thoughts That Hurt to Think #104 – Rules and Refs Ruin Sports!

A lot of Americans love sports, which sounds like a super healthy obsession until you qualify it. Most of us don’t like playing sports, so much as we enjoy watching others play them. This is not a difficult thing to understand, when you think about it. Modern conveniences allow us to witness some of the best athletes the world has ever known squaring off in competition against some of the other best athletes the world has ever known. Very few things are as exciting as seeing amazing performances by people who can only be described as the most elite in their category.

However, anyone who has watched any professional sport in America for any number of years can probably tick off a number of rules that have been modified in that time. The reason for those changes are pretty clear, usually: the people making money off the sport want it to be more interesting to watch, so they alter the way the game is played with that in mind. Going forward, the sport in question is distinctly different; however, statistics are still compared with former performances by athletes who were essentially playing a completely different game.

The other big annoyance for the fan is often the people officiating the game. Although these folks are high profile enough to appear on television during these events, they don’t get the kind of salaries the people playing the game generally do. In simple mathematical terms, we’re telling refs they aren’t as important as the players every time they take the field or the court or the pitch. Yet we still get angry when they do a less than elite job, especially if their bad calls go against our team.

Sometimes referees decide they want a bigger slice of the money pie, and officiate in a way that actually influences the outcome. They’ll place bets beforehand, or take a bribe to skew those results; you can be assured it happens more often than we hear about it happening, and we hear about it happening plenty. It only makes sense, from a financial standpoint; and it kind of makes sense from an emotional one as well. If you tell someone they aren’t really an important part of the game by giving them a relatively small paycheck, you might just logically expect them to show you how important they are by affecting the final score.

Even if we shove those instances aside, we still have to face the fact that all these refs are human. They have preferences, they make mistakes, and they hopefully take pride in their work. The first can cause favorable calls to tend towards one team and unfavorable calls to the other, even if those decisions are unconscious; the second is to be expected, since even the best of the best slip up from time to time; and the third makes them more confident in the calls they make even if they are examples of preferences and mistakes.

Video review can help a referee make the right call, but it doesn’t always help as much as it should. Everything is halted during review, including the momentum of the game. If they kept it all on track, the next play would take a different shape altogether than it will after we all hold our breath waiting for a final decision to be made. Maybe it would have gone in our favor, and maybe it would have leaned the other way; the truth is, no one gets to know when everything gets put on pause. We might wonder how it would have gone, maybe for years to come; but we’ll never get to know.

Not only that, the same ref who needs to have their call reviewed is often the one who made the call in the first place. Automatically, we have to assume a certain bias. Who wants to be wrong in front of millions of viewers, after all? Unless the ref can’t find any grounds at all to back up the original call, you can bet they will be likely to uphold it; sometimes, even when it was clearly the wrong call, they still uphold it. The players are as helpless as the fans in this case, and maybe even more so. They can’t make a very big of a deal about the bad call, or scream profanities at the official; but we can, so we often do it for them.

It doesn’t help, though. The call is upheld or overturned, for better or worse; and the game picks up again, perhaps on a completely different note than it left off on. Maybe that’s just part of the game, and the best athletes are the ones who don’t get their feathers ruffled easily; but right there you just made the entire sport different, from the first game in the season to the last.

Some people are savants, when it comes to sports statistics. Maybe they can’t remember their anniversary, but they can tell you what brand of shoes their favorite player was wearing the first time they took the field professionally. These folks can cite endless instances of games that were influenced by a bad call, and quite a few whose outcomes were determined by one. Old recordings will show you a ton of bad calls that were upheld, before video replay was a thing; but they also show how a team plays on in the heat of that moment. You can have one, or you can have the other; you just can’t have both.

Video review isn’t all that has changed, however. Rules get altered all the time in professional sports, and that isn’t always a bad thing. People get hurt in ways that will plague them the rest of their lives, playing these games; a lot of rules are changed to minimize that damage, and nobody can argue with that reasoning. What we can do is point out how statistics get skewed by these minor tweaks and major changes, and be a little more reasonable about how we make comparisons going forward.

On top of all this, star athletes often get preferential treatment when it comes to having fouls called on them or against them. Sometimes entire teams find themselves in this situation, and they can’t do anything but keep playing the game. Maybe they would have swept the season under any circumstances; but when they do it in that fashion, the whole season and the entire team is thrown into question. Once again, we’ll never know what would have happened if things had played out in a fair and equitable manner.

Of course…that’s the appeal of spectator sports, after all. Even the most predictable game can take a surprising turn, and that’s when things really get exciting for everyone. In a perfect world the only variables we would have to deal with are things like individual performance, weather, travel time and injuries; but in a perfect world, there probably wouldn’t be any place for a blog series called ‘Thoughts that hurt to think’.

This is the world we’ve got, and we have to either take sports as they are or leave them. We need to accept that sometimes rules and refs ruin sports, and decide based on that knowledge that we are going to watch or not watch going forward.

Now, if you’ll excuse me…my lovely wife and I have been following the Timbers for some time now, and they made it through to the finals once again this year. The deciding match is in a few hours, and I want to be ready for it. I need time to put on my jersey, get my favorite profanities all strung together in my brain, and find a live chicken for my pregame ritual. I know this won’t post until a few days from now, and and future you may know the outcome past me doesn’t; but please don’t ruin it for me, and tell me who won.

The rules and refs have already ruined it enough.

Thanks for reading!

All the best,

J.K. Norry
The Secret Society of Deeper Meaning
Twitter: @JayNorry

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