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.

Reuters
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.

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.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.