Please, fire that umpire

Oct. 2, 2003, midnight | By Kent Anderson | 20 years, 8 months ago

One of the most clichéd phrases that youth coaches use in any sport is, "Don't blame the ref." I was always taught, and I'm sure most people who play sports also were, to take responsibility for the game, that the umpire is always right, and that it is never their fault.

This is one of the only myths that is actively encouraged over a broad range of sports. Umpires, referees and linesmen are human and, as such, fail as often as the average human. The idea that they cannot directly influence the outcome of a game, when every out, foul and first down hinges on their judgment, is ludicrous.

There are a few things intrinsically unfair about the system by which most professional sports are refereed today. First, umpiring has become the only profession where performance has been so bad for so long that coaches, players and fans have ceased to demand perfection deemed "good" for making bad calls, as long as he consistently does so.

The second major flaw in the officiating system is what I like to call the "benefit of the doubt" rule. This is seen in every sport: The best teams and the best players are given the "benefit of the doubt" and consequently receive calls in their favor.

Jordan never got called for traveling. Shaq never gets called for a foul. Barry Bonds hasn't taken a "strike" in years. The best players, the most physically gifted, the players in the least need of help, are routinely aided by horrible calls. The less gifted not only have to battle superstars with amazing talent, they also have to battle a squad of referees. I cannot think of a practice that is more inherently unfair.

And since I think that the officials are bad in the pros, I almost go crazy trying to watch high school games. Between volleyball officials blowing their whistles when there is no call and soccer referees not counting goals, it is enough to wonder if they know the rules. However, these people aren't professionals, and just like you wouldn't expect a high school baseball player to hit 40 home runs you can't expect high school officials to be flawless. You can, however, expect them to know the rulebook.

Every field, court, stadium and track has seen its share of bad calls, but the people directly responsible for them are never held responsible. I have never once heard an umpire being fined for a mistake or being fired for incompetence.

When Colorado beat Missouri in 1990 with a touchdown that occurred on a fifth down, no one was fined. When the Orioles lost to the Yankees in the 1996 ALCS because young Jeffrey Maier interfered, turning a pop fly into a home run, no one was fired. There is no reason that guys earning six- figure salaries should be this bad. The only way umpires will get better is by holding them accountable.

When thousands of dollars hinge on a call, it has a much better chance of being right. Why not give umpires statistics, like the players they officiate? Why not base their salaries and job status on these statistics? Players who perform well are rewarded with huge contracts; umpires with the highest success rates should be as well. On the other end of the spectrum, those who aren't up to par should be sent down to a lower position or league, or fired.

Being consistent shouldn't be good enough, not when so much is invested in every game and not when we have the technology to be sure that every call is made correctly. The least every league could do is make instant replay a rule.

When officials finally began to get calls right and start to officiate according to the rulebook, games will finally be played the way they were originally intended to be. Performance, not blown or questionable calls, will decide the outcome of championships.

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