The most abused people in sports are basketball officials, who for a piddling sum are asked to make a thousand judgments every night in a game so fast, with such big players, that Solomon in his wisdom couldn't guess right on half the calls. The striped-shirt so-and-so's, as Adolph Rupp called them, must be diplomats and dictators, cops and arbiters. Reading the paper this week, you'd say the job also calls for hand-to-hand combat.
Not only are mortals asked to do the impossible, they must do it in a cauldron of emotion. Basketball players, more than any other team athletes, perform in full view, wearing little more than a grown man's underwear. Every nuance of behavior, each tidbit of body language, is instantly translated by spectators. If Joe Hero is angry over a striped-shirt's call, Joe Fan gets up on his back legs and screams at the bum.
This vicarious deal makes basketball two hours of frenzy. Already, every trip downcourt is full of potential wonder to dazzle all who see. What magic will Julius Erving work? Will Fred Brown throw the lob to Pat Ewing 14 feet high? Always we have a beautiful game. And, alas, always we have prancing, strutting, fuming, cursing coaches screaming at referees. If Joe Genius screams that the bum is blind, right away Joe Fan wants to hit the bum with a white cane.
Always thus, always so.
Only football officials, especially those of the NFL, seem above petty abuse. Hockey officials are so busy standing and watching fights they have little time for their own hassles. Meanwhile, tradition preserves the right of baseball managers to make dirt-kicking fools of themselves with umpires. The ugliest moments of all come in basketball, when officials are subjected to merciless badgering by coaches, who know better than anyone that every close call is debatable and every screaming objection is tantamount to riot.
It doesn't get much uglier than the scene at Fort Myer Monday night. Referee Joe Lalli disallowed a game's-end shot by West Chester State that would have tied American University at 68. The West Chester State coach, Earl Voss, followed a stampede of his players toward Lalli and his partner, Joe Sylvester.
Before it was over, a referee had been pushed down; military police with guard dogs came onto the basketball floor; a West Chester player, carrying a metal bar, tried to gain entrance to the referees' dressing room, and damage of $500 was done to the West Chester locker room.
Our reporter, Michael Wilbon, talked to the West Chester coach about the goings-on. Earl Voss said, "We got cheated, and you can print that." The next day, Wilbon asked about the locker room damage--a thermostat was stripped off the wall, a water fountain dismantled and a door partition ripped apart.
Voss: "It was the worst, the dirtiest, the filthiest locker room I've ever been in. The water fountain was so dirty I wouldn't drink from it. The whole thing wasn't worth $500."
Voss is a pioneer, breaking new ground in college basketball. This molder of character has shown us the light. If you don't like a referee's call and, on the very same night, you don't like your locker room, either, the prescribed behavior is to put the striped-shirt so-and-so to flight and then attack the thermostat, which at least can't run away.
This isn't the coach's first difficulty with American. Last year, an AU player, Juan Jones, went scrambling for a loose ball near the coach's seat. According to Jones, he brushed against Voss, who in response angrily pushed him away.
Voss didn't see it that way. "Are you kidding?" he told Wilbon this week. "That's ridiculous. Jones threw me in the stands and I bounced out."
The West Chester athletic director, Dick Yoder, quizzed Voss last year about the Jones incident and has talked to the coach again this week.
"There's so much confusion I just don't want to go shooting from the hip," Yoder said yesterday. "We'd like to get to the bottom of this soon. If it turns out that people should be reprimanded, they will be. Right now . . . It's unacceptable. Darn it, something will be done."
Not a second too soon.
So referees aren't perfect.
Another question: whatever happened to the rule that makes it an automatic technical foul for a coach to leap from his bench and question an official's call?
The answer is that the rule still exists, but no one calls it because if they did the game would be one long technical foul.
It's time to blow the whistle on these maniacs.
Sit 'em down with a T.
Give them no room to incite riot. If Bobby Knight wants to complain, make him send the film and a written complaint to the league office. Don't let him intimidate an official on the spot. Name a coach, any coach. Dean Smith, Lefty Driesell, Denny Crum, Saint John Wooden, John Thompson. It isn't only Earl Voss running loose. Intimidation of referees is part of every coach's bench strategy.
They intimidate the referees with screams, but they do it most effectively by the unspoken possibility of blackball. They won't hire the guy again. Or they'll ruin him with the league. Lefty Driesell says colleges need professional referees paid $75,000 a year. That makes sense. The referees would be better, and they would be beyond intimidation.
Obviously, the money isn't there for that, and who's to say Lefty wouldn't find the teensiest tiniest thing wrong with a pro referee? The answer is for university presidents to demand that their athletic people give officials the power of instant technicals, with orders to use the power. As soon as a berserk coach loses a game or two on technicals, he will learn to sit down and shut up.