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Making the Right Call

It isn't easy being a sports official, but modest salaries, lots of travel and constant criticism take a backseat to the camaraderie and challenges of the game
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sharon Stone, July/Aug 2004

Two men walk into a restaurant in Austin, Texas, and notice a football game on the television above the bar. Well, notice may be too strong. What they do is glance up, look at it for a moment as a reflex action and, without any of the details registering, look away.

Football is Randy Christal's profession, and Jon Bible's, too. But it isn't the way they earn their living, and the score of a game is of no more interest to them than week-old lottery numbers. "I watched an entire NFL game yesterday afternoon," Christal says, a measure of pride in his voice, "and I couldn't even tell you which teams were playing. But I do know that Ed Hochuli was the referee."

Christal, who gives management seminars, and Bible, an economics professor and an attorney, are officials. Their sport is college football, though they also umpire college baseball and even worked the foul lines of the American League Championship Series during a 1985 labor dispute. Mostly, they referee football in the Big 12 Conference, spending their autumn weekends shuttling between their Austin homes and places like Stillwater, Oklahoma; Boulder, Colorado; and Lawrence, Kansas, sleeping in motel rooms and eating road food. At the end of the season, they probably couldn't tell you which team had won the conference. But they'll know who had a heck of a year calling pass interference. Officials across the four major American sports, whether they're referees, umpires, linesmen or anything else, live in a parallel universe to ours. They see the same games we see, but with different eyes. They can't root for a team, even in their hearts. They can't fraternize with players, famous or otherwise, and they can't let their emotions show, even when a stadium full of fans is thirsty for their blood.

"There's no doubt we're a different breed," says Bruce Dreckman, a major league umpire. He's sitting in a bar in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after working a spring training game, unwinding with three other umpires, a few fans he knows, and a whole lot of local regulars who probably would give him abuse if they knew who he was. "You go around this room," he says, "I bet you wouldn't find one other guy who would say, 'Yeah, I'd go out and do that.'"

Even if they thought they might like it, the boos might swiftly convince them otherwise. Lawyers and used-car salesmen hear the jokes about their careers, politicians know they'll never appeal to much more than half their constituency, but officials have chosen a profession in which getting publicly insulted is part of the job. More than that, it's an American ritual. Minorities are protected by civil rights legislation, while women, homosexuals, religious zealots, the elderly, the handicapped and even the overweight are defended from discrimination by the law. But hating the guy who enforces the rules at our sporting events transcends race, religion and economic status.

Last winter, Dreckman and some friends were listening to a basketball game back home in Iowa, and they heard Iowa State lose by a few points in the final seconds. "The guys started blasting the referees," Dreckman says, incredulous all over again in the retelling. "And I'm saying, 'You can't even see what happened! You're listening on the radio.' It didn't matter. We're the scapegoat. They're always trying to shoot the messenger."

If that isn't bad enough, nearly all the abuse is heaped on officials far from family and loved ones. That's because referees and umpires are nearly always on the road during the season. They're like traveling salesmen who don't get home for nine months at a time. Think of it like a professional athlete who plays half his games on the road, and the other half...on the road. Except for the rare occasion of working in your hometown, an official, a referee or umpire has no home games.

That's what the life has always been for officials, since professional and college sports began. And here's news: it's getting worse. Once upon a time, an ump could blow a call at home plate at Briggs Stadium in Detroit on a summer afternoon, and the 8,000 fans who saw it would be outraged, and that would be it. There was no instant replay on the scoreboard, and usually no television audience. Fans in the stands and even the reporters in the press box might have thought they saw a play a certain way, but they couldn't be sure. So they learned to live with human imperfection as part of the game.

No more. Now every game, in every sport, is seen live across the continent. If you have satellite television and a VCR, you can watch them all, night after night. If an ump blows a call, you can seethe at his incompetence again and again on "SportsCenter." Or you can see it on videotape and study the sequence as if it were the Zapruder film. "These days, the whole world is watching," says Ronnie Nunn, the National Basketball Association's director of officials.

Why does anyone choose such scrutiny for themselves? Most officials earn between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, so they're not getting rich. And it isn't as if officiating is an easy route to the field, the court or the ice. By dint of mathematics alone, getting to the top as an official is more difficult than getting there as an athlete. Major League Baseball has 30 teams of 25 players each, or 750 total. It employs 68 umpires. If players are more common than U.S. representatives, umpires are scarcer than senators.

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