John Sommers II/Reuters
University of Connecticut's Ryan Boatright fights for a loose ball with Iowa State University's Melvin Ejim in their NCAA March Madness basketball game in Louisville, Kentucky March 15.

The real hero in NCAA March Madness

For college hoop fans eager to embrace a bona fide March Madness NCAA basketball tournament underdog, look away from the brackets and root for the referee. The guys in zebra shirts will confront challenges even greater than matching up against Kentucky or Syracuse.

For college hoop fans eager to embrace a bona fide March Madness underdog, this could be the year to finally do the unthinkable: Root for the referee.

The guys in zebra shirts will confront some of the greatest challenges of the tournament (yes, greater than matching up against Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina, or Michigan State) and will battle odds every bit as daunting as those faced by the 64th seed.

To say this has been less than a banner year for NCAA sports is an understatement. (The list is long before you even get to Penn State football, and who remembers that UConn’s coach Jim Calhoun was suspended for recruiting violations several weeks before he won the 2011 championship?)

Unlike some of the tainted programs run by famously devious coaches, the referees actually represent virtues fans can wholeheartedly admire. Their mission is to administer fairness in a cutthroat environment where both sides are ceaselessly angling for an unfair edge. Standing up for noble principles in the face of derision and abuse, the ref would seem to be exactly the kind of stalwart figure, the fearless sheriff laying down the law in Tombstone territory, that Americans normally applaud.

Yeah, sure, in a perfect world.

In the real world, however, it’s almost certain that some games in the 2012 NCAA tournament will end in a hotly disputed call that will send irate fans of the losing team home with no doubt who it was that crushed their dreams. Vitriolic rants will roil the airwaves. Internet outlets will seethe. There will be threats.

The relative anonymity of the refs makes them easier to scorn. Fans don’t especially want to know that refs are frequently men with demanding day jobs (school superintendent, police SWAT team, family psychologist), that every call they make is scrupulously evaluated by league officials, that they are selected to work elite tournaments on the basis of their performance during the regular season, or that – and here’s the really big one – they genuinely do not care who wins or losses.

In their dispassion, the refs can seem strange as Martians to the average fan. Yet ironically, without impartial officiating, the magic of watching a great game would quickly vanish. For all the gluttonous delight fans sometimes take in ranting at the ref, the faith that fairness will be scrupulously applied undergirds their viewing pleasure.

Achieving it ain’t easy. On the court, it’s a visual madhouse, a perpetual blur. Large, fast, nimble athletes jostle, veer, slap, swirl, stumble, and leap. The line between inadvertent and intentional, permissible and not, is as slippery and elusive as liquid mercury.

One-point game, clock ticking down, shot is launched, and suddenly an extended hand juts skyward to swat the ball away. “Goaltending” is the violation for interfering with a shot that’s reached the apex of its trajectory and is on the descent. But how to instantaneously solve this complex geometry puzzle? Call or non-call, either way, what the ref decides will decide the winner. Damned if you do...

Video of the final traumatic sequence will be replayed again and again (for viewers, that is; under NCAA rules, “judgment” calls like goaltending are not reviewable by officials during the game). Fans and commentators will scrutinize the clip with the micro-focus of surgeons studying emergency room x-rays. The leaping bodies, the flailing arms, the frantic scramble, the ball arcing miraculously toward the rim...and afterward, the enraged coach storming onto the court.

There may come a time when technological solutions can address basketball’s vexing subjectivity. In tennis, optical line-sensing systems now monitor court boundaries. The sport of fencing employs electronic sensors that unfailingly record each “touch.” Perhaps in the future we will know with measurable precision if that acrobatic drive to the hoop was a traveling violation or if the blind-side pick that flattened the defender involved a sly shuffling of feet.

But for now, we must rely on the human factor. The lone referee isolated by the very nature of his mission, standing tall for justice, is straight out of a cowboy saga, high noon at half court. Can’t let them bad guys run roughshod, can’t let that level playing field tilt. We cowards in the grandstand should be grateful to have someone (not us) take on this thankless task.

Bob Katz is a writer working on a book about a college basketball referee. His most recent novel, “Third and Long,” won the 2011 Independent Book Publishers Association award for popular fiction.

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