COMMENTARY: Where are the referees?

January 21

As a bizarre and ungainly conference championship game staggered through its fourth quarter, San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman chased a ball fumbled by a Seattle Seahawks runner at the goal line.

Two things happened: Two players fell on top of Bowman and bent his knee inside out. And the referees blew the call.

Endless replays showed the knee’s awful bending and Bowman retaining control of the ball, even while screaming in pain. Referees awarded the fumble to Seattle, however, and we armchair types learned the odd truth that, while most plays can be reviewed with video replays, this particular type of play isn’t reviewable in the National Football League.

The blown call didn’t seem to change the game’s outcome. Seattle eventually won, and not as a result of this play. But the incident did underscore three truths about referees:

First, without referees (judges, umpires, arbiters, monitors), much of life would be a chaotic ordeal dominated by cheats, bullies, and dirty players. That’s why dictators refuse to allow election monitors, corrupt politicians defame the media who report their corruption, and bankers lobby incessantly against regulators.

Second, even with referees, action moves too fast for certainty. In baseball, even the most skilled umpires miss calls at first and enforce idiosyncratic strike zones.

Third, even-handed justice requires trust in the referee and a belief that missed calls tend to even out over time. If the referee is a cheat — as happens frequently when regulators get paid off by the regulated — trust in the game vanishes, and no one feels safe.

As money dominates our politics and partisan hacks stop at nothing to gain an advantage, trust is in shorter and shorter supply. Minorities have figured out the game is stacked against them. All the talk about equal opportunity, the poor choosing to be poor, and minorities being lazy leeches is just noise to cover up theft by the moneyed few.

The media have served an important refereeing role, but they are vulnerable now to financial pressure and to mounting mistrust of all arbiters.

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s scandal expanded, he took the misdirection tactic of blaming MSNBC for “partisan” reporting. Christie’s defenders have said, in effect, that charges of bullying aren’t credible because critics won’t say as many bad things about President Obama.

Courtroom judges are available, but they are overwhelmed by their caseload, as people who can afford a lawyer don’t accept a verdict against them. Besides, many judges were elected precisely because they promised not to be blind and even-handed in administering justice. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has a carefully manipulated ideological twist.

For a time, religion and the academy served as referees. But religion fell victim to ideological rigidity and partisan bickering, and the academy became fearful of lost funding or lowered rankings.

So we are living, for now at least, in a “Wild West” of gerrymandered voting districts, unfairly enforced laws, corrupt arbiters, and the rich getting richer by buying and tilting basic systems like courts of law and media coverage.

This won’t end well. The balanced and gentle rhetoric of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sounds quaint and naive today, as opposing interests abandon all pretense of fairness and compromise.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

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