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
| By Bruce Schoenfeld | From 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.

Christal, who still longs for a call from the National Football League, has never made it, but he did referee the NCAA national championship game in the Fiesta Bowl in 2003. "There are probably a hundred national championship Fiesta Bowl rings around out there," Christal says, flashing the rock on his finger he earned for officiating the game. "There are seven of these." And that's the start of an explanation, right there.

Referee for Life
It begins with Board of Recreation or Pop Warner games umpired or refereed for pocket cash, and goes from there. You're a high school kid, you like sports, maybe play on a few varsity teams. But you aren't getting to the big leagues and you want to stay in the game.

"I wasn't a very good athlete," Christal says now, between sips of Merlot in the lobby of an Austin hotel. "I wasn't going to be on television playing sports. I was 22, I enjoyed the crowd, the band, the tradition, and I wanted to be part of it."

Christal, 55, teaches management for a living. He is familiar with the work of David McClelland, who authored the seminal 1988 work Human Motivation, and hypothesized that everyone seeks achievement, affiliation or power. "Power I don't give a flip about," Christal says, "but I really enjoy the affiliation with the other folks involved. And walking out there at 55 years old, in front of 50,000 to 80,000 people. I know that there are a lot of fat cats up there who can buy and sell everybody on the field. But they can't do what I do."

He has made refereeing his lifelong avocation, but he hasn't made it a living. It doesn't pay enough. Even some NFL officials, who earn substantially more, work other jobs and travel to game sites on Saturday mornings. Some years ago, when Christal was working the World League of American Football, he'd fly to Barcelona for the weekend, then work a week teaching at the Texas State Comptroller's Office.

These days, Christal is recognized as one of the finest football referees in the country. Twice in seven years, he has worked the Division I championship game. A career was hardly in his mind the first time he reffed a junior high flag football game while working as a tax examiner, but his competitive instinct kicked in. He found himself wanting to excel, a process that hasn't stopped. "You wonder if you're able to work that next level, and you do, and you survive it," he says. "Pretty soon, you start looking up the road again."

Around the time he moved from high school to college, officiating became the most important thing in Christal's life. "I would have left this job and become a plumber to keep officiating," he says. In the end, he'd sacrifice two marriages. "I've umpired in the Olympic Games and at baseball's World Championships. I've done the Rose Bowl, two national championship football games, eight College World Series. But at what cost?"

Along the way, he met Jon Bible at a Little League tournament. A year younger than Christal, Bible is the nephew of Dana X. Bible, a former University of Texas football coach. Jon was 16, one of Houston's better high school baseball players, when he umpired his first Little League game, back in 1966. "I figured out all you had to do was stand behind the mound, and at the end they handed you $7.50," he says.

Bible played in the Minnesota Twins' minor league system, then headed to law school. He started umpiring college baseball games for fun, made a contact and wound up in the Gulf Coast League. He realized that baseball's constant travel would doom his marriage, so he gave up umpiring for refereeing football, which would keep him home all week.

Christal and Bible became fast friends and the linchpins of a group of umpires and officials known as the Austin mafia. These days, if they don't grade out as the top two Big 12 referees every season, they're not far behind. Following the 2002 season, Bible was first in line for a bowl assignment according to the grades kept by the league office. He chose the conference championship game. Christal was second and ended up at the Fiesta Bowl, which was using a Big 12 crew.

That's how he found himself on the field for one of the most controversial finishes to a college season in memory. With Ohio State in need of a first down deep into overtime against Miami, a pass play ended in an apparent incompletion. It would have handed the Hurricanes the national championship, but several seconds after the play ended, a flag was thrown and a pass interference call made. Given the reprieve, Ohio State scored and eventually won the game.

As the referee, Christal was responsible for the entire officiating crew. But he was also responsible for watching the offensive backfield on the play, which is why he saw nothing more than exactly what he was supposed to. "People always ask me about that pass interference call," he says. "I say, 'The only thing I can tell you is, the quarterback wasn't roughed.' 'Well, weren't you watching it?' 'No, I've got a job to do.' I watch the snap, the right tackle if it's a right-handed quarterback, and then I live and die with the quarterback."

If he sounds prickly, it's because that play underscores how little the public understands his job. They don't know about the 90-minute conference call every Wednesday night during the season, the hours watching other officials on tape, the years of training, or even the three miles Christal runs on most days to stay in shape. "All anyone cared about on the pass interference call was how late the flag came, but if you watch the play on the tape, it was absolutely the correct call," he says. "The man was held three times on the same play. But because Dan Fouts said it wasn't pass interference, everyone buys into it."

Christal and Bible agree that the second-guessing is the most galling part of the job. Everyone who steps into the broadcast booth feels free to pass judgment, and these renowned broadcasters—all former players, not officials—influence the opinions of millions who might not fully understand the rules. "I worked Texas Tech and Texas [last fall], and a lot of people at our country club were at the game or saw it on TV," Bible says. "I can't tell you how many of them told me, 'Hey, you did a great job the other night.' Well, with all due respect, how the hell would they know?"

When Bible was one of a handful of officials offered jobs by the NFL for the 1994 season, he was thrilled. "I thought, 'This is the ultimate, this is the pinnacle, this is fantastic," says Bible, who had been working in the Southwest Conference at the time. He lasted three years, three of the worst of his life. He'd been refereeing for decades, as opposed to working as a line judge, a back judge or an umpire, but like all newly hired NFL officials, he started in the league in the defensive backfield, watching receivers running at him—a view he hadn't seen in years. He graded out poorly on the weekly reviews that each officiating crew is given. After that, he was afraid to make a mistake.

Getting fired was a relief. He returned to his law practice, caught on with the Big 12, and regained his life. Christal saw it all happen. He was sad to see his friend fail, but happy to have him back in the college ranks.

Having lived through Bible's NFL experience, Christal is the wiser for it. He knows now how special the bond between a referee and his crew is in a conference like the Big 12. He only earns about $875 a week (augmented by a $300 per diem, and airfare) for 10 weeks, as opposed to the $7,000 to $8,000 a week for 16 weeks that an NFL referee makes, but he didn't take the job to get rich, or even to watch college football. "I don't love the sport," he says flatly. "I don't even like it. What I love is my crew. They're family. I can't wait to get on a plane and fly to Columbia, Missouri, this weekend. What I do is fun. I don't know of anyone in the NFL—no one, absolutely no one—who says it's fun."

And yet, no less than any of the players on the field, Christal is a competitor. As content as he is in the Big 12, as rotten as his best friend's experience was in the NFL, he can't stand not knowing if he would have been good enough. So when asked if he would consider an NFL offer if given the chance, he doesn't hesitate.

He has spent his life reaching for the next rung on the ladder, and the NFL is at the top. "It's all about being the best," he says. "I'd like to know if I could do it. I'd work the NFL this Sunday, if I could."

The Art of the Whistle
Shaquille O'Neal takes a pass inside the foul lane and Boston's Michael Stewart knows what he must do. He wraps the Lakers center in the kind of hug that movies end with. A moment passes and then O'Neal suddenly swings an elbow in an effort to get free.

Watching from the Staples Center stands, Ronnie Nunn leans forward in his seat. "He should get a technical for that," the NBA's director says to himself, watching referee Violet Palmer step in to sort out the mess. Moments later, Palmer turns toward the scorer's table and makes the T sign for a technical foul. Nunn is pleased. "Attagirl," he shouts, more to himself than to the NBA's only female official. "It was the right call, and a gutsy call."

Nunn has flown to Los Angeles from New York for the unique opportunity of seeing two officiating crews in one day. Earlier, the Clippers played the Raptors in the same arena with a three-man crew headed by veteran referee Bernie Fryer. Now the Lakers and Celtics are playing with Jack Nies's crew. Nunn has come unannounced, much as a team's general manager would make a road trip to watch his players.

But Nunn is there to do more than observe. At halftime, he makes his way down to the officials' spartan dressing quarters to talk to Palmer about the technical foul. He praises her for making the call, but lets her know that she bears some of the blame for the incident.

Unlike plays that call for a slow whistle, such as drives through the lane that may evolve in a variety of ways, flagrant contact like that bear hug should be immediately whistled, so no escalation can occur. When O'Neal didn't hear a whistle, he started to take matters into his own hands. "Defuse that before it starts," Nunn tells her.

Palmer listens intently—and acts. Moments into the second half, she blows a quick whistle on a similar play. "That's one reason she's going to be an excellent official," Nunn says. "She really responds to advice and criticism."

Officiating in the NBA is a work in progress. In Nunn's first season behind a desk after 19 years as a referee, he has started to implement changes, both procedural and philosophical. Nunn wants his staff to be more open to discussion, willing to talk to coaches and even players about the reasons calls were made. The referee who made a foul call was once required to immediately head down court to get beyond discussion range, but now he takes up the position along the sideline beside the benches, where gripes can be aired and dealt with before they escalate. "We have nothing to hide," Nunn says.

Nunn makes the case that today's referees are already better than their counterparts of a generation ago—more skilled, more athletic, more consistent. The league office, which used to do little more than issue referees a uniform and a whistle and wish them luck, now monitors the work of every one. It uses video, game observers and even computers, putting difficult plays on a Web site for interpretation to help instill exactly the qualities it wants in its 59-person staff. And top salaries of as much as $400,000 mean that the quality of referee coming into the league is higher than ever before.

But as the referees have improved, so have the players. They're faster than ever, quicker and stronger. Contact is inevitable. At one time, contact in the lane during a shot automatically meant a foul on either the offense or defense, but that isn't the case anymore. Today's referee has to have the judgment of when to blow the whistle—"put air in it," in official's parlance—and when to let play continue. They must do that with a clear knowledge of the league-wide guidelines on what should be a foul and what shouldn't be.

Nunn wants to take as much interpretation out of officiating as possible. Technology has made that necessary. Outraged owners and other gadflys are able to compile tape reels of referees acting inconsistently, calling a foul on one play in Houston but letting a similar play go in Indiana. Nunn is asking his charges not to use their own judgment based on game situations, but to stick to the guidelines.

As a result, officiating is now more science than art. "Balls and strikes," Nunn says. "It's a foul or it isn't." Still, each referee is different. Like a player, each has strengths and weaknesses. Since adding a third official on all games with the 1988—89 season, the league has tried to construct officiating teams in which strengths complement one another. Sixteen of the 59 officials are full-time crew chiefs and don't work with each other until the playoffs. The others rotate, crews staying together for two or three games at a time.

Schedules are made 20 days before the start of the following month, and kept confidential, in part to thwart gamblers. Officials stay in one of three designated hotels in each league city, hotels that have been given clearance as free of gamblers, drug pushers and prostitutes. Most are near the airport because league rules require that officials take the first flight out of a city in the morning, if they haven't been able to leave the night before. The average official works between 70 and 80 games, as much as a player, and he's on the road 22 days of every month.

Unlike the Lakers-Celtics game that follows, when the Celtics will try to compensate for their lack of a physical presence underneath the basket by playing staccato, half-court basketball and fouling O'Neal at every opportunity, the Clippers-Raptors game flows well. In part, this is because the players are running up and down the court of their own accord, but also because Fryer has kept the game moving. However, the second half is always more heated than the first—it's about winning and losing now, Nunn notes, not just scoring points—and when L.A.'s Marko Jaric heads to the basket, Toronto's Donyell Marshall gets a hand up high and contact is made. None of the three officials calls a foul.

Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy thinks Jaric was hit in the head on the drive and lets Fryer know he blew the call and cost his team the game. The crew has a plane to catch to Salt Lake City, but Nunn wants to see the play again on videotape, as well as a half-dozen others he has jotted down in his notebook. With the aid of a state-of-the-art computer system, the plays are downloaded directly onto a television screen in the dressing room. The three officials and Nunn sit in a semicircle and watch the play again and again. It is clear from the replay that Marshall gets a hand only on the ball and never touches Jaric. The call—non-call, actually—was the correct one.

That won't stop Jerry Crowe of the Los Angeles Times from serving as Dunleavy's mouthpiece in the following day's newspaper. Under the headline "Clippers Cry Foul After Loss," Crowe will write, "[The Clippers] wondered how officials Bernie Fryer, Tony Brothers and Zach Zarba could all have been looking the other way when Marko Jaric was bopped on the head by Raptor forward Donyell Marshall." If you hadn't seen the videotape, you would have thought the referees had blown the call.

But they hadn't. Neither had they blown all but one of the others Nunn had noted in his pad. With the exception of an obvious offensive foul that went uncalled earlier in the game, the referees haven't missed a thing. They've worked about as close to a perfectly officiated game as it is possible to have in professional sports.

If the Clippers and Raptors had been achieving on as high a level, which is something of an absurd notion in itself, their game would have been celebrated as an instant classic. But because these achievers are officials, not players, almost nobody realizes what they have seen.

Fryer and his crew leave the arena walking on air. Working a game like that with all three team members clicking together is like turning a double play or scoring a goal with a flurry of passes off a three-on-two rush down the ice. The sense of jubilation makes up for a lot of 5 a.m. wake-up calls. Yet they walk to their rental cars as anonymous as when they arrived, and head for the airport unmolested.

What They Talk About When They Talk About Life
At about 12:30 p.m., on March 3, umpire Joe West arrives at Fort Lauderdale Stadium pulling a steamer trunk of equipment behind him. Since October, he has been idle, soaking up the sun at his Florida home. From now through the end of the season, he will umpire five or six games a week. He'll board perhaps a hundred planes, eat dinners in mid-afternoon and late at night, and file away countless memories.

West, 51, is a big man with a big personality. He has the down-home charisma and folksy manner of a country music singer, which he actually happens to be. He has performed with the likes of Merle Haggard at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, and even cut his own CD, a twangy 1984 release called Blue Cowboy. As an umpire, he's all business. In 1984, he ejected two cameramen from Shea Stadium when they insisted on showing a controversial replay. In 1990, he shoved pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground during an altercation. Still, flashes of wit show through. When the Orioles' batboy tells West he's the son of manager Lee Mazzilli, West says, "Tell your father you're lucky you take after your mother."

At 1:07 p.m., West cleans home plate for the first time in 2004, flicking away the accumulated dirt with a brush he keeps in his shirt pocket. At 1:13, he calls a hitter out on strikes. And at 1:22, West gets booed for the first time since last fall, at least publicly. He follows a Josh Beckett curve down and out of the strike zone, judging it a ball. Marlins fans sitting tens and even hundreds of feet away don't agree, and they let West know it. West is unmoved, but his vacation is now officially over.

Four hours later, West and two of the other umpires who worked the game are sitting at a beach bar tucked under a bridge out past A1A. The umpires, along with retired umpire Steve Ripley, are doing what umpires usually do when they gather: swapping stories. They'll cover what happened in that day's game and similar things that have happened in other games, but quickly segue into anecdotes that have nothing to do with this game at all. They reminisce about time spent off the field and funny situations in which someone they all know—nearly always a player or manager or another umpire—plays the starring role.

A natural raconteur and one of baseball's most senior umpires, West does most of the talking. "One night I was umpiring with Brian Gorman," he tells Dreckman, another umpire named Eddie Rapuano, and a few friends who have gathered around the bar, "and a guy walks into the ump's clubhouse. Gorman asks who he is, and the guy tells him, 'I'm Billy Sample, the new spotter. I watch what the umpires do from the press box.' Brian says, 'Nice tie!'"

The laugh that comes is a laugh of familiarity; if Rapuano and Dreckman haven't heard that story before, they've heard plenty like it. Umpires are a fraternity and their received wisdom gets passed down through the years over dinners, in rental cars and at bars like this one.

"You don't learn how to umpire on the field," Dreckman, a fifth-year man, will say later. "You learn how to umpire by sitting here, talking to veteran guys." Dreckman has arrived from Iowa with his wife and baby daughter, flown them down for spring training using money and airline miles because he knows that seeing them will soon be a rare treat. He looks into the eyes of little Emily, who is only a few weeks old, and tries to memorize her smile. "I don't think I could be here knowing I was in one spot for that long, and they weren't with me," Dreckman says, his face knotted in a grimace. "Not when I know what's coming."

Once the season starts, each four-man crew is bound together like family members on an endless cross-country trip. Day after day, they dress together, work together, relax together—a quartet of soldiers in a movable foxhole. "I worked in Eddie Montague's crew last year, and I didn't know him from Adam before," Dreckman says. "Now I'm invited to his son's wedding."

Rapuano, 47, and West became friends on the first road trip they took together, a three-game, exhibition-season barnstormer north in 1989. The story of that trip is a blurry narrative of late-night juke joints, bleary-eyed airplane flights, hung-over umpiring, beer, whiskey and country music. "I worked the longest three-day week of my life with Joe West," Rapuano says now. "But it was the best week of work I ever had."

But Rapuano was also working the day his daughter was born. It was his first weekend in the big leagues, and his wife's due date was still a week away. Rapuano spoke to his wife on the phone the morning after his first game. She was in the stirrups, ready to push, but she pretended nothing was happening because she didn't want to spoil his achievement. "She knew there was nothing I could do," he says.

That night, when he learned she'd given birth, he had a crisis. It was his second day in the majors, and now he had a daughter he'd never seen. "I thought, 'What am I doing?'" he says. "'What kind of life is this?'"

The feeling passed. Now Rapuano sees the lifestyle as a positive. "My children love seeing me on TV," he says. "They love coming to the stadium when I take them on the road. I make a good living. I can afford to give my family things I never had when I was growing up."

Umpires earn between $87,500 and $340,000, plus $23,000 in potential bonuses. From their per diem, they pay for their own hotels, usually good ones. "You want to go back after a hundred-degree afternoon in Cincinnati and a miserable game and put a quarter in the bed at the Best Western?" Rapuano asks. "Or go to the Ritz-Carlton, relax, get a massage, have a nice meal, sleep on a comfortable bed?"

More often than not, Rapuano says, he'll have at least one meal a day with a colleague. If he calls any, he'll call all three; that way, cliques and jealousies don't develop. "If I'm in Toronto and feel like having lunch, I'll call each guy and say, 'I'm going to the Grotto. You in?'" After games, too, umpires will typically convene for dinner or cocktails, depending on the hour. "I used to love Wrigley Field when they didn't have lights," West says. "We used to make happy hour. Now we can't make last call."

Some umpires like to exercise at lunch or play golf. A few run businesses or pursue hobbies on the road. Paul Runge promoted records at radio stations. Bob Engel collected war memorabilia. "I told his wife one time, 'My brother dove [around] the only U-boat that was ever sunk by the United States Coast Guard, off the shore of North Carolina,'" West says. "She said, 'Don't tell Bob, he'll want it for the swimming pool.'"

That line gets a laugh, then the topic turns to criticism of umpires. "It hurts, even if it isn't about me," Rapuano admits. "Most people don't know what they're talking about, usually don't even know the rule in question, but I can't help but be affected. I'll never let it roll off my back, not until the last time I walk off the field."

"Try to think about where it's coming from," West advises. "Usually someone whose team has just lost the game."

To compensate for the criticism, umpires have developed a code of loyalty to one another. A nod of approval from a peer means more to them than glorious praise from a fan, a player or even an owner. "We couldn't care less what Barry Bonds thinks of us," West says. "We couldn't care less what the front office thinks. We're concerned about the guy working across from us who says, 'He's doing his job the right way.' Mike Shannon, the Cardinal announcer, says we're the only real authority left. There are no appeals, no higher court. We're judge, jury, executioner."

West will miss that feeling when he decides to retire, he says. He'll miss the interaction with kids, and walking into a ballpark knowing he's as vital to the process as the players—or even more so. "They don't run the game," he says. "We run the game."

But more than that, he'll miss evenings like this one: drinking beer, telling stories, knowing he has nowhere special he has to be. Darkness has settled in over the Intracoastal Waterway. Sandwiches and burgers are eaten, rounds of drinks paid for, but still the socializing and the stories continue. At one point, West looks out over the bar. "When Dutch Rennert retired," he says, "they asked him if he'd miss the game. He said, 'I won't miss the game. I'll miss the guys.'"


"That's me, right there," West says now, his voice as wistful as a country song. "I'll miss the guys."

Bruce Schoenfeld's The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton was recently published by Harper Collins.