It ain’t over till the fat man forgets

Referees are expected to be robots, unfeeling, unemotional and inhumane. But sport is about passion, emotion and humanity. Hence the tension.

It is said that you don’t have to be mad to be a goalkeeper in soccer, but it helps. Perhaps the same applies to referees and umpires too. Again, like goalkeepers, they are noticed only when something goes wrong (which is as it should be). But why would anyone want the job? It can’t be the pay (below international levels, and sometimes even there, it can be downright embarrassing), it can’t be for the honour of the thing alone.

Why would someone voluntarily take up a job where they are guaranteed to be cursed, spat upon, screamed at, held responsible for everything that goes wrong, and have to put up with boorish behaviour from the stars in the sport. Knowing all along that their parent body will often let them down? It takes a special person to be a professional sportsman — there are hours and hours of practice ahead, a single-mindedness that few outsiders understand, long periods of disappointment and possibility of career-ending injuries. The professional referee goes through all of the above with the additional burden of getting thorough with every rule and its exception.

At the US Open women’s final, umpire Carlos Ramos, for instance, was just following the letter of the law. Serena’s coach did admit to coaching from the sidelines. Serena was guilty of racquet abuse. She was manifestly guilty of verbal abuse. The referee merely ticked the boxes and ruled. By attaching lofty ideals to what was plain bad behaviour, Serena was being foolish and undignified. Star players are backed by both their governing bodies and television. Sometimes it is put about that a good fight makes for good television. Maybe. But it’s bad sport.

“Before you get hired,” said NBA referee Marc Davis, “they take a body scan, and right below your heart there’s a little vacuous spot. That’s where your feelings go. If it’s empty there, then you are an NBA ref.”

That is a telling comment. Referees are expected to be robots, unfeeling, unemotional and inhumane. But sport is about passion, emotion and humanity. Hence the tension. Football referees have been killed in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico for decisions made on the field.

All referees make mistakes. They are human. But the best ones are not influenced by external factors, develop an instinct for approaching trouble, and are conscious of the essence of any competition — keep the game flowing, do not interrupt unnecessarily. Perhaps this is where Ramos got it wrong. He could have had a quiet word in Serena’s ear when he first noticed the coaching. A word to the wise — even someone as charged up as during the final of a Grand Slam event — is sufficient. “The trouble with referees,” said the legendary football coach Bill Shankly, “is that they know the rules, but don’t know the game.”

Former FIFA referee Keith Hackett once said, “During the game you forget decisions immediately, but over the years they come back to haunt you.” Clearly, it ain’t over till the fat man forgets.