Outside Oberlin

The unnecessary pursuit of perfection

by Eben Askins

As the millennium approaches, it is clear that our century has witnessed its share of monumental technological feats. The world of sports has also seen its share of technological improvements, and the four major sports have changed in accordance with them. A glaring "improvement" has been the addition of many different camera angles (and, consequently, less intelligent commentating) that allow for clearer pictures of "the action" during live television broadcasts.

Unfortunately for the players, owners and fans, the umpires and referees associated with the four major sports do not benefit from these additional camera angles. In the last three years, no group has been more unfairly scrutinized than our less-than-perfect - or, shall we say, human - officials.

Yet it is unfair to blame the owners and fans for criticizing the officials. Expansion, "spicier" ballparks and arenas and eight digit salaries have combined to perpetuate an insatiable appetite in the public sphere for all that is bigger, better, and faster.

As a result of the criticism that has been heaped upon umpires and referees in every sport, the good folks who preside over Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and the National Football League have tried in turn to tinker with certain rules, hoping either to improve officiating or, at the very least, to hide its weaknesses. For evidence, let's review the facts.

Last year, the NHL brass took a hard look at some popular new strategies that defensive franchises like the New Jersey Devils and the Florida Panthers had employed to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Clubs that were not as talented offensively started clutching and grabbing top scoring opponents at mid-ice to prevent scoring rushes.

This led to fewer scoring chances, fewer shots on goal and, logically enough, lower scoring games.

Coaches, players and fans complained about this system, referred to as the "neutral-zone trap". They also complained about late hits that too often occurred behind the play in which the referees were too occupied with the puck to call the appropriate penalties. The situation became so divisive that former Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux retired from the game, complaining that scorers were constantly being assaulted by thuggish defenders as league officials looked the other way.

In response to such complaints, the NHL recently experimented with a two-referee system, placing two refs on roughly one-third of the regular season games. This system was so effective that they approved it for the playoffs. The league has now approved the change for all regular-season games next year.

The NBA was getting tons of flack for its unclear charging foul. Many offensive players were complaining that defenders could stand virtually right below the basket and get charging calls. Two years ago, the NBA added a semicircle down in the paint about three feet in front of the basket. If a defender's feet were touching that semi-circle, then the defensive player would automatically get charged for a foul. If the man were to be outside, however, the ref would have to use his judgement.

This change has yielded mixed results. Some defenders claim the added paint is unnecessary, another obstacle to overcome when preparing to battle with oncoming giants. Offensive players say that it clutters up the lane, as too many defenders concentrate all their energy on making sure they are not in the zone. Most of all it has taken pressure off the refs, which is always a good thing.

The most controversial rule in football over the last ten years has to be instant replay. We had it, then it was gone, then it was rumored to be making a comeback; now, it has returned in some new strange and alien form. The new replay rule has some provision about how each team gets a certain number of reviews per half, but if their review merely confirms the original call, they get a timeout deducted. The refs then stand on the sideline like couch potatoes watching the replay screen. But get this - in order to "save time," the refs are given a time limit in which they can replay a call. I don't fully understand the whole idea, and frankly, I don't really care.

The part I don't understand is why the officials have been so vilified. Sure, they have historically made a number of mistakes that could have changed the outcome of some games, enabling some unworthy teams to make the playoffs (see Jets vs. Seahawks, circa 1998). For good measure, I can name a million examples from last year (all of which seemed to cheat the Buffalo Bills), but they were no more obscene than the mistakes from any other year.

Why do we think that these middle-aged, often overweight, balding men can be perfect? They are not paid nearly enough for the kind of public scrutiny they are put through. Not to mention the rigorous travel and their scapegoat representation they go through on a daily basis.

This brings me to the "national pastime." I have never seen an ump go through more hell than Eric Gregg did after the 1997 National League Championship Series reached its controversial conclusion. Yes, Livan Hernandez had 16 strikeouts during game six of that series , but how many were helped along by the ultra-liberal Gregg? I admit that I watched that game and complained with the rest of them about every slider that was ten inches off the plate. But I have since rescinded my criticism. Why?

Because every night baseball umpires are put under the microscope. These men, who are routinely called upon to stand and squat for three and a half hours, experience more physical pain during each game than any other officials. Then, whenever a bad call is made, a bunch of fat, middle-aged coaches waddle out from their warm seats in the dugout to yell and spit chaw and bubble gum in the faces of their so-called oppressors. What a joke.

This past year baseball adopted an unofficial change in the definition of the strike zone to cut down on outside, borderline strikes and to call more strikes above the belt. I'll admit I have noticed a change in the overall strike zone, but on any given night, I'll watch Greg Maddux or Rick Reed keep extending home plate like a big piece of Play-Doh.

Folks, why the infatuation with perfection? Some baseball stadiums have overhead cams, so we can actually calculate how many inches the ump was wrong by. But is it necessary? Is this technology welcome? Pretty soon, there will be motion sensors planted underneath home plate or electrodes in the end zone. Human error has always been part of sports. It is not necessarily bad for the game, it just adds another quirkiness that makes each individual sport unique.

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Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 128, Number 2, September 10, 1999

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