Friday, February 24, 2012

Rules for Referee-Spectator Interactions

The video above from last Saturday's NC State-UNC basketball game shows referee Mark Hess tossing out two spectators who happened to be former NC State stars players Tom Guliotta and  Chris Corchiani. The ejections prompted a host of reactions including this from NC State head coachMark Gottfried:
"I'm disappointed quite frankly in the ACC because not only did he throw out two of North Carolina State's greats, he threw out two of the ACC's greats," Gottfried said. "The league is supporting an official rather than supporting former great players. The former great players, in my opinion, were embarrassed and wronged when they shouldn't have been. I don't think you can have rabbit ears like that if you're a referee and start throwing people out. I was disappointed in the whole thing."
The Atlantic Coast Conference has backed the referee, but issued a reprimand for not following procedure: he had a police officer escort the two fans off the court rather than officials from the home team.

The incident raises the broader question of referee-spectator interactions. We are generally accustomed to thinking of referees as responsible for governance of action on the court. But the reality is that most big-time sporting events, not just frenzied college basketball games, see interactions between spectators and referees. Most of the time this interaction comes in the form of abuse hurled at the referee from spectators.  On a football field (US, soccer, rugby or Aussie) the officials are at a healthy distance from fans, but do have to deal with the occasional pitch invasion, object launched onto the field or even racial or other forms of abuse.

Being a referee is a difficult job. Here is how one referee describes the role in an essay about the NC State controversy:
Let there be no confusion: it takes an absolutely supreme amount of confidence to do the jobs that high-D1 basketball officials do. Imagine what it would be like to talk to Coach K or Roy Williams one-on-one about basketball. Now imagine the mental and emotional toughness it would take for you to stand your ground with either of those two men when he says you’re wrong about something. Now imagine he’s not just saying you’re wrong, but that he’s yelling it. At you. Along with nine- or twenty-one thousand of his best friends. Now turn around (he’s still yelling at you) and go make split-second decisions about the movements of elite athletes trying to pummel each other. And make those decisions accurately.

You have to be arrogant as hell to even try.
No doubt there are guidelines in each relevant sport that govern referee-spectator interactions, but as demonstrated in the case of NC State, these guidelines are rather imprecise and rarely invoked, hence the wide range of opinions on the appropriateness of the referee's action in this case. The referee explained his decision as follows:
They were ejected for excessive demonstration on several calls as they came right up to the scorer’s table. The policeman at the end of the FSU bench was warned that their continual excessive demonstration that incited the crowd would result in ejection.
The same basketball referee quoted above provides a cogent explanation for the factors that a referee must consider in making a judgment about fan behavior:
As most university ticket managers will tell you, not all fans are created equal. At least, not all seat-privileges are. For example, there are different standards of decorum for those seated behind the home bench versus those in the student section. It’s also not uncommon for schools to have a couple of rows of seats reserved behind the visitors’ section. The conventional practice is that people who acquire those tickets are told in no uncertain terms that their primary responsibility is to provide a buffer between the visiting fans and the more spirited of home fans. These ticket holders are typically given strict instructions that they are not to negatively engage, much less taunt the visiting fans, even in the slightest. The enforcement mechanism tends to be that if the ticket office learns that a fan in that section hasn’t lived up to the standard, the violator loses eligibility for those tickets in the future.

Schools aren’t required to do that kind of thing (though I expect that virtually all do), but it’s just plain common sense from a PR standpoint. Along the same lines, any school that fails to set standards and expectations for those holding tickets directly behind its scorer’s table is asking for trouble. Fans seated there should be informed (and in most cases probably are) that clear channels of communication simply must be maintained between the officials and the staff at the table, and that sitting in that area implies a sharing of the responsibility to insure that part of the game. Does that mean people in the front row shouldn’t be allowed to cheer? That those spectators shouldn’t be able to make any noise at all for fear of distracting a scorer or referee? That they should never be allowed to loudly criticize a referee or a call? Of course not. But it must be acknowledged that fans sitting in that area are capable of impacting the administration of a game in ways that fans anywhere else in the arena simply are not. As such, when it comes to fan conduct no one should be surprised that the definitions of “extreme” and “excessive” (the most important words in the relevant part of Rule 10) aren’t necessarily the same for everyone for every fan in the gym.
Referee-spectator interactions provide a fine example of where the governance in the game overlaps with the governance of the game. In the case of Mark Hess, he now has become part of the story and a personality in the game, which for both referees and for sport, is an outcome surely to be avoided.


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