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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I want to begin this column by commending all those who serve in the honorable profession of sports officiating. 

Whether it’s at the elementary, middle school, high school, college, or pro level, you guys and gals endure a lot of criticism and verbal abuse as part of the job, and, from what I’ve seen (for the most part, anyway), you stand up under all that with impressive grace and self-control. 

It’s your dedication to sportsmanship, integrity, fairness, sound judgment, and the rules of the game that really makes organized sports possible.

I have covered hundreds (if not thousands) of athletic events of all kinds for various newspapers over the past few decades, and I can only recall one occasion when I genuinely believed that the referees were being intentionally corrupt in their officiating.

That instance took place about 20 years ago during a regular season high school football game. But for the sake of discretion, I will refer to the two teams involved simply as the visiting team and the home team.

I was there taking photos and notes for the visiting team, which was having a very good year and was strongly favored to win. But before the first quarter was over, it had become apparent to me (and pretty much everyone else there) that the referees were actively conspiring to influence the outcome – or, at least, trying hard to make the home-team boys look better.

Just to give you an idea, the visiting team was credited with several touchdowns during the game, but the number of trips they made to the end zone far exceeded what was reflected on the scoreboard. They would score, and the refs would call it back … again and again and again. If I remember correctly, there was one occasion when the visitors crossed the goal line four times in four consecutive plays, and it was only on the fourth trip that the officials finally relented and let the touchdown stand.

And it wasn’t only calling back touchdowns. The visitors were having to fight forward through a continuous barrage of penalties of all kinds, while I don’t think a single call was made against the home team until the second half. There were even instances when home-team players obviously jumped offsides, but the visitors were the ones who got docked five yards.

The one-sidedness of the officiating was just blatant, and it didn’t take long before the atmosphere there on the sidelines and in the stands behind me started to turn ugly. People on the visitors’ side were getting very angry, and a lot of what I overheard being said by coaches and players and shouted out loud by fans cannot be repeated in a family-friendly forum like this newspaper.

By halftime, that football stadium was a powder keg ready to blow. Some shouting matches broke out around the concession stand between fans from different sides, and I suspect it was only the presence and intervention of police officers (who I could tell were on high alert) that kept a riot from breaking out.

But then the atmosphere changed in the second half. I don’t know what was said among the visiting coaches and players during the break, but when they came back out on the field, that whole team seemed happy as a lark, as if they didn’t have a care in the world. And when the refs started in on the same nefarious stuff they were doing in the first half, I overheard one coach say, “Don’t sweat it, boys. Just get out there and have fun.”

And soon a lighter attitude seemed to settle over that stadium (at least on the visitors’ side), and the angry shouts and cursing eased down into joking and more light-hearted jabs at the referees.

The visiting team, of course, won the game by a large margin, so I guess it was a happy ending (for the visitors, anyway). But, looking back, I wonder how it would have gone if the teams had been more evenly matched and the slanted officiating had actually determined that game’s outcome. Things might have gotten truly ugly.

Truth is there are few things that will make people angrier (and more apt to violence) than a strong belief that they are being treated unfairly – which is why it’s so important that those who serve in the role of referee perform that duty with integrity, honesty, and even-handed justice.

Please forgive me for jumping from sports to politics, but I believe that same principle and dynamic applies to society as a whole.

Whether you’re a judge or a police officer or an election official or a mayor or a president or a teacher or a school administrator or a shift manager or a small business owner or a corporate CEO or an online content moderator or a cable news anchor or even a small-town newspaper editor – if you hold a position of power and influence over other people, then, to one degree or another, you serve as one of our society’s referees.

And I believe that comes with some ethical responsibility as part of the package.

Sure, everyone has their own beliefs, opinions, biases, preferences, and prejudices, and everybody wants their favorite teams to win – but the difference between good refs and bad refs boils down to whether or not they let those things compromise their integrity in the way they do their jobs and in the way they treat people.

And in the same way that good, trustworthy officiating keeps the sports world turning on a stable axis, it’s just as important for those who hold the levers of power in our society to do what they do with integrity. 

Free and civil society cannot long exist without at least a certain level of justice and fairness – but when injustice, corruption, and uneven dealings become the rule rather than the exception, that’s when things can get ugly for everyone.

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