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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, March 4, 2024

Sports and Society: Unfairly psychoanalyzing referees


Refereeing is literally impossible. That makes no sense, so I’m going to explain it with my favorite overly-complex comedy bit: responding to an imaginary heckler. Action.

Imaginary Heckler: “Ahem, that’s uh … (fixes glasses) NOT what the word literally means. Heheh.”

Ok, listen here, Mr. I-haven’t-evolved-my-sense-of-humor-since-the-seventh-grade, you were supposed to comment on the egregious take that refereeing is impossible, but I guess I don’t control what you choose to spend your very limited portion of this word-limited column on.

Here’s a definition you may find useful:

Literally, adv.

  1. In a completely accurate way
  2. Virtually; used to exaggerate, very nearly

At the highest level, the difficulty of refereeing deserves some near-impossible exaggeration, as the outcomes of games matter to most people and — because sports betting is now ubiquitous — huge sums of money may be riding them.

Super Bowl LVII found referees once again called to the forefront of the sports world to defend their conduct before the utterly biased and not-exactly-independent court of public opinion, in which the jury curiously happened to consist of 12 Eagles fans. A holding call on Eagles’ cornerback James Bradberry in the waning moments of the Chiefs’ final drive gave Patrick Mahomes and his team the ability to run out all but a few seconds from the clock, kicking a chip-shot field goal that literally won them the game.

Now, Bradberry himself admitted to tugging on receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s jersey, which is a textbook hold. Whether the referee should have thrown a flag on such a decisive play is an open question, such as what happened when Ravens’ cornerback Jimmy Smith harassed 49ers’ wide receiver Michael Crabtree on the decisive play of Super Bowl XLVII.

I am not sure if either was holding. I am not sure if either referee should have thrown a flag. This ordeal has only made me sure of one thing: Refereeing is completely absurd.

In the live broadcast, I couldn’t even see Bradberry touch Smith-Schuster. I had literally no angle with which I could decide if there was a penalty or not, yet my first reaction when the flag was thrown was a loud groan of disappointment. I didn’t care what I saw next. My mind had decided that — for the purposes of maximum enjoyment — there could not be a penalty on that play. It was too crucial.

The fact that I even had that thought is telling of the impossibility of refereeing. I consume more football than the Food and Drug Administration has deemed calorically responsible, yet my emotional response to a penalty I just didn’t want to exist was that the official should not have thrown it.

Don’t think I forgot about you, Imaginary Heckler. Just like the word literally and the whole basis of this column, the referee has to operate in margins of weirdness that the rest of us simply are not comfortable with. They are somehow expected to watch the greatest spectacles we have invented and pass off instantaneous, dispassionate and correct verdicts. Literally all of them could have gone either way, and it was up to the referee’s imperfect human nature to decide the difference. Anyone got a better idea?