Criticizing Referees and Judges

The conclusion of the collegiate and professional football seasons has brought about more than the usual number of questionable — and outright blown — calls. In response to Sunday’s replay-assisted overturning of a Pittsburgh interception, the NFL issued a statement informing fans that the call was wrong. The play should have been called — as it originally was — an interception, and the Steelers (likely) would have won the game without the drama that occurred after that point.

The controversies bring up a subject on which I plan to write this summer — the ways in which sports and the legal profession can learn from the ways each deals with criticisms of those who apply the rules. The differences are extensive and interesting.

In terms of actual independence, judges are much more insulated than are sports officials. Even in the states, where 80% of judges are elected, often terms are long and few judges have re-election challenges to worry about. (There are exceptions, of course.) And the federal system’s tenure and salary protection provide significant independence beyond the level enjoyed by state judges.

Sports officials, by contrast, may be fired more or less at will (though I am not familiar with the specifics of the NFL’s policy and invite comment from those who are). Sure, fans do not play much of a role in deciding whether to keep a referee employed, but when a significant error like this one occurs, some repurcussions are likely. At the least, Morelli will not work any more games this season, and he could even be fined, according to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen. On top of this, officials in the NFL and all amateur athletics are part-timers who have to hold down real jobs to earn a living. It is conceivable that officials’ dependence on other forms of income could lessen their ability to be independent in the face of criticism from employers, clients, etc.

In terms of criticism, though, it is judges who must endure more from the participants. Both sports officials and judges hear plenty of criticism from the public, of course, and sports officials must hear the criticism even when working. (“Kill the umpire,” etc.) But sports leagues have been draconian in prohibiting comment by players and coaches about officiating blunders. After Sunday’s Steelers-Colts game, for example, Steeler Joey Porter said, “I know they wanted Indy to win this game; the whole world loves Peyton Manning. But come on, man, don’t take the game away from us like that.” It is likely that he will be fined, even though the NFL agrees that the call was a mistake. (Porter, of course, accused the referee of bias and not just blowing the call, but there are plenty of examples where fines have been assessed merely for calling attention to officiating mistakes. The best quote on the subject is from Jim Finks, New Orleans Saints General Manager, who responded to a question about calls during one of his team’s games, “I’m not allowed to comment on lousy no good officiating.”

The legal profession, too, attempts to squelch free speech criticizing judges, but recognizes that First Amendment principles limit the extent to which parties, lawyers, politicians, and the public can be restricted.

My question is predominantly a practical one: Do restrictions on criticism of sports officials add to their respect? Does a sports league, or do individual officials, gain anything when the league prohibits a coach from saying that a particular official blew a call when replay after replay makes that fact clear to everyone? Is the speech ban prophylactic, in that the real goal is to eliminate comments relating to potential bias or limit violence? What, then, explains the leagues’ apparent acceptance of on-field criticisms of officials (e.g., Marv Levy: “You over-officious jerk!”)?

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1 Response

  1. SAN says:

    Officials and common law style judges are not completely comparable. Sports officials would be the equivalent of the police and a superior court judge in terms of their roles.

    Restrictions on criticism of officials is partly practical – excessive criticism is one of the main reasons for referees to leave in their first few years. The fewer entry level officials you have, the lower the quality of the top officials (just a numbers game – the less people you start with, the less likely you are to attract the next Brian Hall – US FIFA ref, had multiple games in the 2002 WC, very, very good).

    As to criticism, my understanding is that if you criticize a judge vocally in his own court, you’ll be spending the night in jail. For officials, it is normal (each sport has a “line” beyond which people get tossed). But the “on the job” criticism is much heavier in sports officiating than in judging to my knowledge. You can always decide not to read a critical article, you can’t decide not to hear a parent or coach screaming at you.

    Having said that, judges get less support from the “league” than sports officials do. Most leagues recognize that officials are a necessary evil, so tend to back them up (although sometimes, they fail miserably – again causing resignations, lost officials and terrible morale by those who understand the rules/laws). While judges as a whole get pounded on by politicians as a class.

    As to hiring/firing, each sport is different. For all of them, it is a multiyear process to reach the top. 7 or 8 years even if you are on the fast track and start young. Most professional leagues have continual assessments (many do each game), and will fire if they drop below a certain level. Sometimes, one single failure (a moment of truth) is enough to wash you out – the concern is that if you wimped out on in a moment of truth (ejecting someone, penalty kick, etc…) you lack the necessary courage for the job.

    As to your comments for on the field vs off the field, each sport has a certain culture. In most of them, an attitude exists of what goes on the field, stays on the field (if it doesn’t become obnoxious enough to draw a penalty during the game). Also, what are coaches to that sport? In mine, they are barely mentioned in the laws – so they get less slack than players on the field (as the game is about the player, not either the coaches or the refs). In others (football), they are much more important, so seem to be able to scream at the referee much more than players can. Given that most fans can’t lip read that well, what a coach or a player says to an official is between them. It isn’t unusual for a player to forget what they said in the heat of the moment, so the long term impact isn’t generally huge if they are dealt with on the field (anything from chewing them out to throwing them out depending on what was said)

    Criticism after the game tends to be much more public (broadcast by the media) and corrosive (cheats, etc…) of trust in the official. The officials can no longer just shrug it off and for it – the comments are now in print. So leagues tend to come down on them somewhat hard.

    Interest articles.