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The Monitor's View

Why NFL referees must be model judges

The 'bad' NFL referee call in the 'Monday Night Football' game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers puts a spotlight on those among us whom we elevate as truth tellers and judges.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / September 26, 2012

A referee indicates a Seattle Seahawks game-winning touchdown over the Green Bay Packers during the fourth quarter of their NFL Monday night football game.

Reuters

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Even those who don’t follow sports have likely felt the collective outrage of football fans over a referee’s “bad call” in Monday night’s matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.

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Some outrage mattered more than most.

“Terrible,” chimed in President Obama.

Bring back the “experienced referees,” added Mitt Romney, referring to the National Football League’s lockout of its regular refs in a contract dispute and the use of less-qualified refs.

The referee’s call that gave the Seahawks a winning touchdown was almost like hearing that the Supreme Court had ruled the sky was pink. Or that NASA had announced that the moon was made of cheese. Or that the United Nations had decided to let Cuba join its Human Rights Council. (Actually, it did.)

Truth isn’t a relative concept to sports fans, just as it isn’t to most everyone else. They demand that those who officiate a game make decisions based on objective facts. They expect their referees to be neutral, observant, trustworthy – not biased, sloppy, or arbitrary.

Yet referees, like baseball umpires or Olympic judges, have it rough in the era of instant replays and YouTube. Their mistakes are magnified while their good calls are not appreciated. Athletes, too, know better these days how to break a rule with stealth in order to win. Games are faster. Fans are more alert to“unfair” calls.

Yet even as the public demands credible impartiality in many arenas, not just in sports, there is also a growing suspicion that truth cannot be really known and that those we set up to judge us will always bring hidden subjectivity.

The justices on the Supreme Court, for example, are often presumed to put ideology or personal views into their roles as arbiters of the law. Their critics divide them into defined camps, conservative or liberal, activist or strict constructionist.

Since the 1920s, legal scholars have questioned the ideal of judges as impartial and independent, despite the advice of Alexander Hamilton, who said that the judiciary must operate with “neither Force nor Will, but merely judgment.”

Chief Justice John Roberts was ridiculed during his 2005 confirmation hearings for saying judges must act like a home-plate baseball umpire, merely calling balls and strikes. “Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them,” he said. “They make sure everybody plays by the rules.”

Later, his view was backed up by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who stated during her hearings that judges should not “rely on what’s in their heart” or apply feelings to facts.

Yet a desire for truth in black and white does often run in gray, as when a football referee must decide whether a defender actually hindered a pass receiver or merely made “incidental contact.”

When we elevate individuals to be judges over us, we are asking them to both know the truth and, when the truth isn’t clear, make a judgment call.

It’s a balancing act that even the best sports referee or high court justice finds daunting. When they falter, however, they are instantly reminded of a basic compulsion in humanity for knowing the truth.

Just ask the ref who made the call for the Seahawks.

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