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Sport Officials
"Always lead with an open hand not a pointed finger."
Source unknown


by
Daniel Frankl, Ph.D.

Records of officials[1] in sport contests hark back to ancient Greece and other early civilizations (Harris, 1964; Swaddling, 1980). According to Greek mythology, twelve gods, including Zeus as their head, comprised the Olympic counsel on Mt. Olympus. The ancient Greeks held numerous religious festivals and athletic contests to honor their gods. The Olympics games were held once every four years and were dedicated to Zeus. It was customary for athletes, their fathers, brothers and coaches to take "an oath upon slices of boar's flesh that in nothing will they sin against the Olympic games." The very religious Greeks did not leave the overseeing of the games to their gods. Especially appointed Hellanodikai (officials) lived in seclusion for ten months prior to the games and prepared to officiate the games. The Hellanodikai's decisions were final and athletes as well as their coaches faced harsh punishment for not following the rules.

During the Ancient Olympic Games, ten Hellanodikai oversaw the games (Swaddling, 1980). Currently, several hundred thousand officials are needed to oversee interscholastic and Little League competition during any given week in North America alone. While most modern day officials have some formal training and many played or are closely familiar with the sport they oversee, their status and authority on the field is merely a shadow of the stature their ancient counterparts enjoyed.

Effective and fair officiating may be no less demanding a skill than playing or coaching the game. The sport official's role is very unique as it requires an intimate familiarity with the game, the athletes, coaches, and spectators and at the same time it demands an emotional distance from this highly charged environment. The purpose of this article is to explore the official's unique role in sport contests and to discuss her/his relations to coaches, athletes, spectators, and the game.


The Need For Officials

Are officials a necessary part of athletic competition? Why can't athletes, coaches, or parents/spectators fulfill the task of officiating? Bunn (1968) pointed out the self evident fact that the practice of self-officiating is not at all satisfactory and in many instances decidedly unfair. Athletes having to deal with maximum performance and good officiating often find themselves in a dilemma. Shall they they focus their attention on the ball and hitting it back, in tennis for example, or shall they look for the ball's placement in relation to the court's boundaries? Will the coach be willing to give up her/his coaching duties so the he/she may focus on officiating the game? Can a parent/spectator, who's child is involved in the game, be perceived as impartial by the coaches, players and spectators associated with the opposing team? Unfortunately, too often the correctness of the official's decision seems to be less relevant to the parties involved than their emotion bound perceptions. In spite all criticism, officials are widely used in an overwhelming majority of sports at a wide range of competitive levels. Martial's description of a dilemma to a friend: "Nec tecum possum vivere nec sine te" (I cannot live with you and I cannot live without you) (Appenzeller & Appenzeler, 1980, p. vii), may express many athletes', coaches' and spectators' sentiments toward the game official.

The Official's Role at Various Levels of Competition

To better comprehend the official's role, the purpose of a sport contest should be defined. The term "contest" originated the Latin words com and testari, ..."meaning to bear witness together, it suggests both human plurality and common testimony (Kretchmar, 1975, p. 28)." Kretchmar (1975) explains that at least two people must be doing the same task for valid comparisons of athletic performance to be made. The purpose of the sport contest, according to Fraleigh (1984), is ..."to provide equal opportunity for the contestant to test, mutually, their relative abilities to move mass in space and time within the confines established by an agreed upon set of rules (p. 41)."

In general the referee is responsible to administer the rules according to the official interpretations as they appear in the manual developed by the organization for which they are working (Bunn, 1968). It is the official's duty to interpret and defend the rules, and it is her/his right to refuse to listen to protests (Weiss, 1969). Officials are perceived as the "guardians" of the sports contest. This view may reflect a need in competitive sports at the professional level, but should it also represent the expectations from officials at the Little League, and or highschool and inter-collegiate varsity athletics environments?

Based on observations of 121 regular season youth sports contests (baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and soccer) Coakley (1982) concluded that "The major purpose of game rules seemed to be the standardization of competition and the control of player behavior (p. 89)." When dealing with youth, however, should rule enforcement be based only on the standardization of competition, self-control, and obedience of player? If we must use officials at sport contests for the very young, shouldn't we expect these individuals to be role models, activity facilitators, teachers first, and then enforcers of the game rules? Still, without proper rule enforcement one cannot expect to witness a true contest nor can one provide a safe competitive environment for children. Describing young hockey players, Vaz (1972) suggested that physically aggressive behavior is normative, institutionalized behavior, and is learned during the formal and informal socialization in hockey games. Twenty eight years later, young athletes competing in a wide variety of youth sports routinely get away with a wide range of rule violations and acts of hostile aggression towards opponents. If rule enforcement at children's organized team sport events, as observed by Coackley, ultimately rests in the hands of adults, how then could the often seen reckless behavior persist unless something is missing in a "guardian of the sport contest" form of officiating?

During the 2000 European Football (soccer) Cup final game between France and Italy, the Italian team almost got away with winning the championship despite resorting to tactics on the field that had little if anything to do with proper soccer skills. Grabbing onto the opponent's shirt or pants, as well as excessive pushing and flagrant intentional tripping would instantly disappear from this great game if it carried an unequivocal immediate ejection from the game. Soccer players use "Yellow Cards" as tokens for bad behavior. "That's how many times I can do bad things before it really counts" type of attitude. A soccer culture that tolerates aggressive illegal defensive tactics is one of the reasons this sport is known as the "scoreless game" among sports fans in the U.S.

Reznik and Grambeau (1978) proposed a concept of the official's role for all levels of competition that suits both little league and varsity athletics. They hold that the official's adherence to specific precepts is necessary and helpful, and their list of do's and don'ts include the following items:
  • the official should be firm, but not arrogant; fair, but not officious
  • the official should make a sincere effort to develop a basic knowledge and understanding of human nature
  • officials should call all fouls regardless of the pressure from fans, the score, whom it will hurt, or how it will affect their future inter-relations with the coaches and athletes
  • the official's reputation should be built on the basis of her/his uncompromising honesty and integrity
  • officials should be role models if they are to be respected by the players, coaches, and spectators
Still, officials should know their limitations. Their role is not to be perfect. Michener (1976) makes it clear that umpiring with all knowledge and effort put into it is still a chancy activity.


Officials as Individuals
Officiating at any sport activity or level of competition is not an easy task. It is time consuming, stressful and probably one of the most demanding and least appreciated of the many sports professions (Appenzeller & Appenzeller, 1980; Holland, 1979; Horkheimer, 1964; New, 1969). Why then, do officials undertake this task? What drives them to expose themselves to the pressure and often unjustified criticism? Certainly not monetary gain. Out of over than one hundred thousand officials in the United States and Canada, only a few hundreds[2] are well paid[3] as officials in the professional leagues. Harry New, an English football (soccer) league referee simply stated that the love for the game and the strong feeling for justice are the main reasons for the official to take the task (New, 1969). In their study of sport officials' perceptions of fans, players and their occupations, Mitchell, Leonard, and Schmitt (1982) reported among other findings that professional baseball and hockey officials considered their job as challenging and competitive. They also found that most of the officials had a special attraction to the sport they officiated. In their investigation of the social profile of high school basketball officials, Purdy and Snyder (1985) concluded that: "(1) interest and enthusiasm for the sport; (2) the challenge and excitement offered by officiating; (3) the extra money provided by officiating, and (4) the feeling of power and being in control generated by officiating (p. 54)" are all reasons for officials to select the role.

In spite of Mitchell Leonard, and Schmitt's and New's observations, some may claim that officials chose their task because it allows them to fulfill their dictatorial-authoritarian drives. The strict and formal behavior exhibited by officials in numerous sport events might have contributed to the above described impression. The power the official possesses, as perceived by coaches and players, might be another reason for the above beliefs. The game of Basketball Rules, published by the National Athletic Association, state that the "referee has the power to make decisions on any points not specifically covered in the rules and even forfeit the game when he or she deems this necessary." A Cleveland Browns football player criticized the officials after a close loss to the Pittsburg Stealers by claiming that: "The game was stolen from us. The officials are like God. They have the power to give and take away. They decided this time to take away" (Appenzeller & Appenzeller, 1980, p. 193). Michener (1976), referring to the 1972 baskeyball game at the Munich Olympiad finals, called the officials "partisans" and blamed them for stealing the basketball championship from the United States. Complaining to a fellow writer he said: "...to have a game stolen, and so blatantly, and against the judgment of the responsible officials on the floor..." When asked, "but what can you do about it?" Michener's answer was "At the time, nothing" (p. 473). A recent incident of an irresponsible call was the clearly illegal save by the women's US team goalie Briana Scurry that handed the women's world cup to the Americans over the Chinese players. Any person familiar with the rules governing the penalty kick saw what the game official must have failed to observe. Goalie Scurry made her move before the kick was taken. A call that should have clearly been a penalty retake, was confirmed as the goal that sealed the world championship. After playing as well and as hard as the talented US team (especially Scurry!) did, they deverved the chance to win without handouts!

The above are examples of the official's power, and her/his fallibility and in some cases partiality. Still, the notion that officials are authoritarian by nature should be reconsidered in light of the fact that the overwhelming majority of officials are fulfilling their task away from the eye of the media and outside the professional arena. Urlich (1976) provides a very optimistic view of the official. "The official's only transgression could be ignorance, never deceit. The official is deemed incorruptible for he is truly an objective judge who deserves respect by virtue of both his position and his talents" (Urlich, 1976, p.84).

Compared with the role fulfilled by the coach, Horkheimer (1964), pointed out that the "referee or umpire on the other hand is never a professional, most of them have never been regular team members" (p. 181). Horkheimer's (1964) observation would probably be still valid when describing many current little league soccer referees as well as coaches. In contrast to Horkheimer's view Tenterova (1967) stated that "Gymnasts should have just as much confidence in their judges as in their coaches, they must respect the statements of the judges as well as comments of the coaches" (p. 23). Tenterova adds that one of the main prerequisites of expert qualifications is a former practice in competing. In sports, such as, diving, gymnastics, and wrestling judges compile a score based on pre-existing evaluation criteria. Properly contrasting two strong performances requires a thorough understanding of the required skills as well as the relative value of the single elements that comprise the total performance. Thus, experience as a regular team member enables the referee to draw upon personal experience when making a tough call. This, however, may not necessarily represent a positive procedure in all forms of officiating. Did the call address the observed fact or a filtered version of it? Clearly, knowing the game and its rules are a must for effective officiating. Experience in competition would certainly contribute to the referee's understanding of the dynamics between opposing teams' players and coaches. An official that knows why a player or coach lost her/his temper is in a better position to help the player or coach to regroup. Still, individuals that have had little or no previous competitive experiences, but are dedicated students of the sport and its rules, can develop into effective game officials.


The Coach the Athlete and the Official

In his insightful philosophic paper titled "Competition and Friendship," Hyland (1978) pointed out that when competing with each other "We call each other and call ourselves into question" (p. 36). Competition, he believes, should be seen as a striving together toward the completion of excellence. But, unfortunately, subjecting ourselves to the judgement of others, we run the risk of tainting the competing parties with alienation. It seems that, too often, coaches and athletes find such alienation natural and acceptable. The opposing teams represent the "enemy" and athletes are trained to play against and not with each other. Officiating between friends is not always an easy task, not to mention, between enemies. The more the coaches and athletes are interested in the outcome of the competition and not so in its process, the less they will be tolerant of the rules, to each other, and of officials' decisions (especially on those occasions the official clearly missed a call). Despite his criticism, Michener (1976) conceded that "we ask too much of games if we demand a God-like finality in umpiring" (p. 362). In a hostile competitive environment, athletes, coaches, and spectators are inclined to overlook Michener's fundamental observation. A typical example would be the angry denunciation of an official by Notre Dame football coach Dan Devine after his team lost to USC: "If the official made a mistake on that call, I'll work to see that he'll never work another game" (Appenzeller & Appenzeller, 1980, p.196). Is there, however, some validity to the point that losing a game often has more to do with numerous coach and player mistakes committed during a game than it is the result of one mistake by the referee?

It should be made clear though, that by saying "mistakes" one does not refer to Olympic events such as, boxing, figure skating, gymnastics, wrestling and more..., in which judging was so ridden with national animosities that honest competition was rare (Michener, 1976; Thomas & Hannon, 1980). In general, coaches and athletes are advised to adopt the suggestions put forth by the Youth Sports Guide for Coaches and Parent (1977) that treating officials with respect and tolerance for mistakes will assist players and coaches in acting in a dignified manner. Officials do make mistakes, yet Koppet's (1967) point that in most protests against the umpire's decisions in baseball, the umpire is in the best position to make the call. Anyone that has spent enough time at court side must have noticed that players, coaches, and especially spectators that often are 50 or more yards away from an incident, question a call made by a referee who was positioned several feet away from the event.

As is true in all sports, the official must call only rule violations that he/she actually sees. Should the official be screened from a given action, he/she should not guess but leave the call to a better positioned colleague. When in doubt, the official should admit missing the incident and restart the specific play (Dolan, 1982). Dolan's observation, which is probably accepted by the overwhelming majority of the coaches, athletes and spectators, lies at the heart of good officiating.


The Case of Bias in Officiating
Assumming that the vast majority of officials are trying their best, do their judgments always reflect what they actually see? Scheer and Ansorge's (1975) study of gymnastics judges was one of the earliest attempts to test the above question. Gymnastics judges participating in their study rated significantly higher the same gymnast's routine if it was performed fourth as compared to first in the team order. The score a gymnast is awarded for performing a gymnastics routine may therefore be influenced by factors other than quality of the performance. A replication of the study three years later by Ansorge, scheer, Laub and Howard (1978) again showed that female gymnasts were scored significantly higher if they appeared in the fifth position for their team, than if they appeared in the first position. In two other studies Scheer and his colleagues (Scheer & Ansorge, 1979; Scheer, Ansorge & Howard, 1983) reported that measurements of locus of control successfully differentiated between gymnastics judges' ability to resist outside influences in making scoring decisions. During a rare display of loss of self-control, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls threw the ball forcefully at an opposing team's player who just fouled him. The game referee's reaction the Mr. Jordan's behavior was nowhere near to one a rookie or regular bench player might have experienced for committing the same intentional display of hostile aggression. It is no secret that "super-star" professional athletes manage to get away with rule violations that bench players might end paying dearly for. The reason for the observed preferential treatment of athletes of different levels of skills could be the official's tendency to succumb to pressure from coaches, players, and spectators. To use the game of chess analogy, some players' ability represents a "queen" and other player's ability represents the equivalent of a "rook" or a "bishop" on the field of play. All are important pieces, however ejecting the "queen" for the same violation a bishop was ejected results in a devastating blow to the team that lost its "queen." In the eyes of the impartial referee all players are equal. Thus, when on the field, the "queen" should act like one, or should not be surprised to find out she's getting the same treatment as the pinned "pawn" in the far corner of the board. Any form of bias in officiating undermines objective efforts.

Conclusion

A sport contest can be valid only when taking place under an established and agreed upon set of rules. Should one competitor or both teams resort to intentional rule violation, competition under such conditions is no longer intact. Coaches, athletes, and fans may claim victory in false contests, but the basis for contesting (the equal limitation of opportunity) is not present (Kretchmar, 1979). The role of the official in any sport contest is to maintain equal opportunity for all competitors. Athletes are often faced with situations in a sport contest that would make it impossible for them to properly focus on their task while at the same time, for example, call a line, an offside or a strike. Athletes and coaches have every right to expect officials to exhibit high standards of professionalism and skills. Cheating and intentional rule violations on the part of athletes and coaches is inconsistent with the previously described expectation of officials. It is in fact hypocritical and amounts to a moral standard that would seem unacceptable ouside the sports arena. In every day life situations, intentionally hurting another person, stealing, lying," etc. are not O.K. even if not caught by the authorities and disciplined by the judicial system. The acceptance of a lower standard of morality in the sport arena makes the task of the official undully hard. Official are not considered to be outsiders in sport contests, such as, soccer, basketball, and team handball. They are an integral part of the game, yet they fulfill a very special and specific role. Their task is to ensure that all competitors are faced with an equal opportunity to succeed based on their skills and physical fitness. In addition, officials are responsible in assisting the athletes and coaches in achieving a skilled, safe, and socially positive sport contest. Though this may be true for all levels of competition, it best describes the official's role in youth sports. One should not forget the mission of sports and athletics as a means of education rather than solely ends in itself (AAHPER, 1961).

There is no convincing evidence that officials undertake their demanding and stressful task for the wrong reasons. It would be helpful to assume, then, that officials find their task a self-testing challenge, a pleasant way of helping the youngsters involved in competition, and an exciting experience of making judgments. No matter how righteous officials are, they should realize that however unintentionally, they are sometimes wrong. The ability to admit an error is the first step to the process of rebuilding trust and respect. We cannot avoid making mistakes, nor can we exert complete control over our performance. However, the decision not to learn from our mistakes is entirely our own. Extending the line of research initiated by Ansorge and his colleagues to a wider variety of sports would greatly help sincere officials in detecting and controlling various sources of bias that may influence their judgment. The official should be aware of her/his fallibility even though honestly attempting to make accurate decisions.

The rapport that exists between officials and coach, officials and athletes, and officials and spectators is visible to all. Experience has shown, that arguing with the official does not do any good to the sport contest. Coaches, athletes, and officials must understand that in a win or lose situation there will always exist an unhappy side. Even if it may not alter the final decision or the score for any one specific contest, courteous inquiries constitute the preferred course of action. Officials, according to Turnbul (1973) should be encouraged to remain for any social functions connected with the leagues. In this way, officials become familiar with the philosophy and objectives of various leagues and their members.

Finally, the coach and athlete might wish to get highly rated, experienced, knowledgeable and honest officials for each of their sport contests, while officials might ask for "more coaches [and athletes] who are willing to put their reputations on the line by going for the well played game" (Kaelin, 1979, p.331).


Footnotes
(1) The terms, "judge," "official," "referee," and "umpire" are used interchangeably throughout this essay and all refer to the same function.

(2) The National Baseball League employed only 24 full-time umpires in 1978 (Sports Illustrated, April 20, 1981, 54: 17)

(3) In 1978, a Nationa Baseball League full-time umpire made $27,500.00 a year..."a whole lot less than the millionaire players we have to baby-sit for" (NBL Umpire Erric Gregg quoted in Sports Illustrated, April 20, 1981, 54: 78)


References
  • American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (1961). Spectator Sportsmanship. Washington, DC: Author.
  • Ansorge, C. J., Scheer, J. K., Laub, J., & Howard, H. J. (1978). Bias in judging woman's gymnastics induced by expectations of within-team order. Research Quarterly, 49, 399-405.
  • Appenzeller, H., & Appenzeller, T. (1980). Sports and the courts. Charlottesville, VA: The Michie Company.
  • Bunn, J. W. (1968). The arts of officiating sports (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Coakley, J. J. (1980).Sport in society: Issues and controversies (2nd ed.). St Louis, MO: Mosby.
  • Coakley, J. J. (1994). Sport in society: Issues and controversies (5th ed.). St Louis, MO: Mosby.
  • Dolan, F. E. (1982). Calling the play. New York, NY: Atheneum.
  • Fraleigh, W. P. (1984). Right action in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • Harris, A. H. (1964). Greek athletes and athletics. London, UK: Hutchinson.
  • Holland, J. C. (1979). Heart rate response of high school basketball officials. The Physician and Sports Medicine, 7, 78-83; 86-87.
  • Horkheimer, M. (1964). New patterns in social relations. In E. Jokl & E. Simons (Eds.), International research in sport and physical education (pp. 181-182). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
  • Hyland, D. A. (1978). Competition and friendship. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, V, 27-37.
  • Kaelin, E. F. (1979). The well played game: Notes toward an aesthetics of sport. In E. Gerber & M. William (Eds.). Sport and the body: A philosophical symposium (2nd ed.) (pp. 324-331). Philadelphia: Lea and Fegiber.
  • Koppett, L. (1967). A thinking man's guide to baseball. New York, NY: C. P. Dutton.
  • Kretchmar, R. S. (1975). From test to contest: An analysis of two kinds of counter point in sport. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. II, 27-29.
  • Mitchell, J. S., Leonard, W. M., & Schmitt, R. L. (1982). Sport officials' perceptions of fans, players, and their occupations: A comparative study of baseball and hockey. Journal of Sport Behavior, 5, 83-95.
  • Michener, J. A. (1976). Sports in America. New York, NY: Fawcett Crest.
  • National Collegiate Athletic Association. (1982). Official read-easy men's basketball rules 1983 (13th Annual Edition). Mission, KS: Publishing Department.
  • New, H. (1969). The referee's part of the game. In J. Gordon (Ed.), Soccer the international way 1970. New York, NY: A. S. Barnes.
  • Rerun Redisigns His Act. (1981). Sports Illustrated, (April 20), 54:17, 78-81.
  • Resnik, W. J., & Grambeau, R. J. (1978). Official manual: Touch and flag football. West Point, NY: Leisure.
  • Russel, G. W., & Drewry, B. R. (1976). Crowd size and competitive aspects of aggression in ice hockey: An archival study. Human Relations, 31, 1-12.
  • Scheer, J. K., & Ansorge, J. C. (1975). Effects of naturally indiced judges' expectations on the ratings of physical performances. Research Quarterly, 46, 463-470.
  • Scheer, J. K., & Ansorge, C. J. (1979). Influence due to expectations of judges: A function of internal-external locus of control. Journal of Sport Psychology, 1, 53-58.
  • Scheer, J. K., Ansorge, C. J., & Howard, J. (1983). Judging bias induced by viewing contrived videotapes: A function of selected psychological variables. Journal of Sport Psychology, 5, 427-437.
  • Swaddling, J. (1980). The ancient Olympic games. London, UK: British Museum.
  • Tenterova, A. (1967, May-June). Judging clinic--Centenary College--February 27-28, March 1, Madmoiselle Gymnast.
  • Thomas, J. R. (ed.) (1977). Youth sports guide for coaches and parents. Washington, DC: AAHPER.
  • Thomas, K., & Hannon, K. (1980). Kurt Thomas on gymnastics. New York, NY: Fireside.
  • Turnbull, A. (1973). Basketball for women. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  • Ulrich, C. (1976). To seek and find. Washington, DC: AAHPER.
  • Vaz, W. E. (1972). The culture of young hockey players: Some initial observations. In E. Taylor (Ed.), Training--Its scientific basis and application. Springfield, IL: Thomas.
  • Weiss, P. (1969). Sport--A philosophic inquiry. Carbondale, IL: University Press.
  • Widmeyer, W. N., & Birch, J. S. (1984). Aggression in professional ice hockey: A strategy for success or reaction to failure? The Journal of Psychology, 117, 77-84.
  • Worrell, G. L., & Harris, D. V. (1986). The relationship of perceived and observed aggression of ice hockey players. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 17, 34-40.

Suggested Readings
  • Lumpkin, A., Kay Stoll, S., & Beller, J. M. (1994). Sport ethics: Applications for fair play. St Louis, MO: Mosby.
  • Martens, R. (1978). Joy and sadness in children's sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • Shea, E. J. (1996). Ethical decisions in sport: Interscholastic, intercollegiate, Olympic, and professional. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
  • Wertz, S. K. (1991). Talking a good game: Inquiries into the principles of sport. Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press
Copyright© 1996-01, Daniel Frankl, Ph.D.

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