Staying invisible

Update 8/15: According to the New York Times, NBA referee Tim Donaghy plead guilty to two felony gambling counts.
There is a maxim among sports referees that the best officiated game is one where no one notices the referees.

Unfortunately for the NBA, the referees have become very visible due to the recent federal investigation of Tim Donaghy, a veteran NBA referee. Donaghy is being investigated for possible tampering of games that he officiated and gambled on; the FBI is also investigating the connections between Donaghy and organized crime, according to various newspaper reports. For the NBA, this follows a report in May of an academic study of NBA officials that concluded racial bias, where white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players. This quantitative study was based on public data gathered from box scores, and according to the researchers Justin Wolfers (U. Pennsylvania) and Joseph Price (Cornell), accounted for fouls based on specific positions and status of players (following the commonly held belief that superstars are not charged with as many fouls as average players). Of all the recent scandals in sports, many analysts believe that this officiating/gambling scandal is possibly the most serious of them all (such as doping or off-field crime issues). This is because the issue of fairness, of the level playing field, is vital to the integrity of sports for their fans. Sports fans may recognize other inequalities in competition – some professional teams or universities may have more money than others and can attract better athletes – but outright manipulation by sports administrators crosses the line. On any given playing field or court, referees are the most visible of these guardians on fairness, which makes staying invisible a very delicate situation. Sporting events such as the Olympics or World Cup soccer as spectacles have been widely studied to show how they serve as a social forum for the negotiation and performance of a wide variety of processes such as identity, nationalism, and modernity. There has been less research, however, on the hidden actors and bureaucratic organizations that structure such spectacles.

By examining sports through a focus on the “third team on the field,” I can deconstruct how the performance of sporting events as spectacles are shaped by the sport bureaucracy through: 1) the management, adjudication, and enforcement of game and administrative rules; 2) the social networks built through the training and education of referees shape; 3) the bureaucratic hierarchy and the assignment of particular referees to sporting events. Much of this data was gathered through my own activity as a men’s lacrosse official, at the college, high school, and youth level.

First, there are the rules themselves – these are constructed at the national or international level through meticulous negotiation by league and team officials (with some input by the referees themselves). Rule books read and look like legal documents, with its arcane definitions and simultaneously specific yet vague description of what constitutes a foul. On the field, observing fouls as they are described in rule books is difficult, and individual judgment often comes into play. In the end, however, an official can be technically correct in his or her call, but wrong – this is because of the importance of something referred to as “game management.” As I have gained experience as an official, I have accumulated a number of such incidents – but one good example of game management can be found in this article by Ric Bucher, where the call made by the single woman NBA referee (of approximately 62 referees) is broken down in detail. Game management means calling fouls in such a way that keeps the game under control. This may mean either ignoring or enforcing a rule to send a signal to both teams that they must behave properly. This issue of game management is clearly a case where the wider context is taken into account, resulting perhaps in a more subjective interpretation by referees that in the end makes for a fair and controlled game.

Because game management comes with experience, seniority matters; officiating crews have someone designated as the “crew chief” who sets the tone for his/her crew before the game. Pre-game meetings by officials are thus important in coordinating the judgment and interpretations of the officiating crew; NCAA men’s lacrosse officials, for example, must show up at the game site two hours prior to the start of a game. So the assignment of officials and the designation of the crew chief strongly shapes the conduct of games. This is why the social networks of referees, developed through referee training and past officiating, is an important factor shaping the conduct of a game. This is also one of the allegations made against Donaghy, in that he supposedly tipped off gambling rings as to the composition of officiating crews prior to their official announcement even to teams. This is also a factor neglected by Wolfers and Price (at least in the full study and addendum made available by the New York Times). Crew composition does matter, but the crew chief who sets the parameters for game management matters even more. This system is reinforced by a series of careful post-game evaluations conducted by officials within the hierarchy of sports referees, establishing a disciplinary mechanism that is largely exercised through the assignment of referees.

What I am suggesting is that there is a systematic “misrecognition” in sports, where people see objectivity as the rule, instead of fairness. Being fair is not necessarily an outcome of objectivity. Most coaches, in fact, recognize this, and do not really demand “objectivity” from their referees; instead, they want consistency. I think sports fans would acknowledge that fairness is perhaps more important than technical correctness. The study of referees also brings out the supposedly invisible strands of power that shape the conduct of a cultural event. Like STS studies that have pointed to the role of peer and grant reviewers (such as Bourdieu’s work), supposedly objective structures adhere to a wider institutional purpose, and in ways that are not necessarily for ulterior motives or morally wrong.