I have a problem with authority, all forms of it, from jackbooted deputies to tin-badge traffic cops, and, occasionally, it even extends to inanimate turnstiles. But nothing arouses more blind and unreasoning hostility in me than someone in a striped shirt with a whistle in his mouth or a flag in his pocket. This is not the most responsible stance I have ever taken, I know.
A more responsible person, a more reasonable and fair-minded person would say, tsk tsk, you should not hate officials. Can't have games without them. Fine. Let other, more responsible people defend them. Better people than me. Me, I once told a well-meaning Olympic security guard during a routine bag search, "Who are you, John Wayne?" Me, when I see a bungled or controversial call, I scream until small bits of food fly from my mouth, and I have to be put to bed with a headache. Apparently, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has the same reaction I do. He is angry that twice in two weeks now, playoff games have been decided by specious or controversial calls. The refs are complaining that the league unfairly blames them and hangs them out to dry. Let me say this about that: In order to win a Super Bowl championship, you should only have to beat 11 men. Not 11 men and a referee.
When an athlete makes a boneheaded mistake I feel a twinge of impatience, mixed with sympathy or regret. But when an official screws up, I'm angry.
Why? Because it's not like he had to actually throw or catch or hit the ball.
He just had to PAY ATTENTION.
I'm willing to admit that there is something excessive in my response to officials. I don't love them for being right, I only hate them for being wrong. They're never there when I want them and they're always there when I don't. So I decided to ask people more responsible than me, more reasonable and fair-minded, why I hate them so. Is it Freudian? Is it a buried past life thing, or some traumatic unrecovered memory?
According to Mike Oriard, former NFL player and now a professor of literature at Oregon State and the author of "Reading Football," and Sporting With the Gods," explorations of games as cultural exercises, I hate officials because they inject chance and caprice into what ought to be straightforward narrative in which the outcome is determined by skill. There is a place for chance in games -- we accept and even embrace chance because chance it enables underdogs. "But when chance intrudes from outside the game in the form of a bad call from an official it violates our sense of appropriateness," Oriard says. "The outcome has been determined by people that we consider deeply unworthy. Officials are the bureaucrats of sports. The wrong people. It's the imposition of an alternative narrative that doesn't seem to belong."
Who are officials, anyway? I'll tell you who they look like to me, through my narrowed eyes: former high school equipment managers and hall monitors. Above all, in the NFL, they are part-timers. By day they sell aluminum siding or teach golf. These are the people who are empowered to make rulings that interfere with my personal well being.
I have never gotten a favorable call and neither has anyone I have ever cared about.
Good officials supposedly don't care who wins. What kind of dried-out soul doesn't care who wins? Would you want your daughter to marry an official? (I don't even want to be related to one.) An official is every woman's first husband.
Above all, I suspect officials. I know that officials have a cartel that determines the criteria for pass interference, the strike zone and the penalties for fighting in hockey. Who are they to be doing this? I know for a fact that officials make up for bad calls by making more bad calls against the other team. I know that good hitters get a smaller strike zone. I know that some players never get called for traveling when they drive the lane.
Officials are the mysterious variables in the equation of the game -- nobody is ever sure why they do what they do, or if they're going to do it or not.
I reserve a special contempt for that most wretched of characters, the Arrogant Official -- the guy who plays God and makes a call at the end of the game, when there is no recourse. Worse than clipping, roughing the kicker or throwing at the batter, worse than any infraction is the bad call as game-ender.
In principle, we accept the idea that chance and error are factors in games. Deep down, we don't simply want the physically best team to always win. The bad bounce and underdogs are part of the pleasure, and we generally believe that over the course of a 60-minute game, a team should have to surmount some bad luck and error, but that they breaks will even out. But a bad call at the end of the game creates more adversity than be overcome. And that's when spectators and participants, from me to Tagliabue, balk at the idea of error, and lose all restraint.
I'm only willing to say only one thing on their behalf: They are a necessary evil.
So why can't I feel more friendly and forbearing toward them? Perhaps I need officials for more than just preserving order. Perhaps I need to hate them. "Officials are a convenient crutch," says Chuck Korr, a sports historian and professor of history at Missouri-St. Louis, and the author of "The End of Baseball as We Knew It," a history of labor in baseball. "When is the last time you heard that the other team won because they were better? If 'we' lost, it's somebody else's fault. Officials are the all-purpose excuse for our own incompetence." In other words, it's not nearly as satisfying to blame the New York Giants' defense for blowing a four-touchdown lead, as it is to scream at the officials for blowing a call that denied them another shot at a game-winning field goal.
Korr has studied fanatical sports behavior all over the world, even among South African political prisoners in the 1970s. He found that even the men incarcerated on Robben Island, the prison island off of Cape Town, reserved a special ire for sports officials. The prisoners, when they weren't breaking rocks, passed their sentences by founding their own highly organized sports league, with divisions and referees. In 1999, Korr interviewed three men who had served 13 years together for political activism. Two of them had been competitors in the league, while a third had been an official. "They spent twenty minutes complaining about an offside call in 1974," Korr says. "They were sentenced together, released together, worked in the underground together. And here they were arguing about a call that had taken place a quarter of a century earlier."
Korr asked the officials why they did it. Why would anyone in his right mind, in such a closed community, knowing how everyone hates officials, do the job? They replied that someone had to do it, otherwise there would have been no games on Robben Island. Korr asked them if anyone ever said thanks.
The answer was, of course not.
Korr defends officials; he maintains that the people who volunteer to wear striped shirts have an appreciation and love of sports that exceeds even that of the participants. "Otherwise, I can't figure out a single reason why a reasonable and intelligent person would open themselves up to that kind of perpetual grief," he says.
(Maybe because they have a numbered account in Zurich?)
Maybe the reason I hate officials is that they make sports like real life with their bad calls. Real life is about caprice, chance and even injustice, and I get enough of that without having to watch it during a game.
On the other hand, maybe I've overcomplicated the entire issue. Maybe it's really very simple.
Why do I have a problem with officials? Because they're BLIND, that's why.