It ain’t over till the fat man for­gets

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


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 sin­gle­mind­ed­ness that few out­siders un­der­stand, long pe­ri­ods of dis­ap­point­ment and pos­si­bil­ity of ca­reer­end­ing 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.


Who is at fault? Ser­ena Wil­liams ar­gues with chair um­pire Car­los Ramos dur­ing the women’s fi­nal of the U.S. Open ten­nis tour­na­ment. Ser­ena lost in straight sets to Ja­panese star Naomi Osaka.

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