A decade or so ago, a friend asked if I could referee a 5th grade championship game at a local elementary school. Apparently, the ref they had in place fell ill, and they were running out of options. He knew I played ball in college, so he figured I’d do at least a passable job.
I accepted, because it sounded like fun, $50 for an hour’s work is a lot of money and, besides, how hard could it be?
I wish I could tell you it was as easy as I thought it would be. But, that would be a lie. It actually was -- and this is no hyperbole -- the most difficult hour of my life. I’ve played in gyms in front of 20,000 people. I’ve guarded guys who are in the NBA now. I’ve even listened to a Big Sean album all the way through. But nothing compared to being in that band box gym, and having the crowd -- mostly parents of the players -- the coaches and even the players complain, b*tch, moan, scream, and just act a damn fool about every. single. call. Which was crazy because, again, these were 5th graders!!! Half of them couldn’t even dribble upcourt without tripping over the halfcourt line, yet every decision (and non-decision) I made was scrutinized.
And, even without the background noise, refereeing the game wasn’t easy. You can’t possibly see every single thing that happens on the court. Sometimes you miss fouls. Sometimes something that looks like a foul really isn’t. Sometimes you blow the whistle a fraction too early. Sometimes you blow it a fraction too late. And of course, with every mistake (and non-mistake) you make comes an allegation that you’re “cheating” for the other team. But the game moves far too fast -- and your decisions are far too reactive -- to even consider consciously giving someone an advantage.
Of course, rationally thinking people know all of this. But sports fans tend not to be rationally thinking people...especially when their team is involved.
Why am I bringing this up?
Well, the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs are playing game one of the NBA Finals tonight. For a basketball purist, this is a dream match-up. The two best teams in the league. The best coach and the best young coach. The league’s best player attempting to add to his legacy and arguably the best power forward of all-time attempting to cement his. South Beach vs...whatever the hell they do in San Antonio.
There are multiple factors that’ll decide who wins this series, including:
1. Tony Parker’s ankle
2. Dwyane Wade’s knee
3. Can the Spurs match-up to the Heat’s small lineup?
4. Can the Heat limit the number of corner 3’s the Spurs are able to take?
5. Will the Heat need to double Tim Duncan?
6. Will the Spurs help Kwahi Leonard on Lebron, or will they “allow” Lebron to get his and shut everyone else down?
7. Which coach will make the best in-game adjustments?
8. Which team will get the most early-offensive/transition opportunities?
8. Is Shane Battier still alive?
9. Will the weight of Lebron’s headband be too much for him to carry?
10. Why do the Spurs have so many light-skinned players? Is it choice or coincidence?
11. Who is Drake rooting for?
And none have to do with the referees. If the Spurs happen to win, or if the Heat happen to win, the referees will not be the reason why.
As mentioned earlier, this is a hard concept to grasp for many sports fans. For some, the referees aren’t just a prominent factor in wins and losses, they’re the only factor.
If their team loses: “Of course we lost. It’s hard beating 8 guys when you only have five. This sh*t is rigged, man. It’s Obama’s fault.”
If their team wins: “It’s about time the refs decided to call things fairly. I guess a broke clock really is right twice a day. Still, though. F*ck Obama.”
Now, I will concede that the way the refs are calling a game can have an effect on it. Refs, after all, are human (I think). And humans are prone to mistakes. But, as anyone who has actually played sports on a high level will tell you, the refs are just one of the dozens of variables you learn to deal with. Sometimes you won’t even notice they’re there. And sometimes they’ll make decisions you don’t agree with. But never do you blame them for losing a game you were able to play in.
Unless, of course, you’re a loser.
Or, a mom of a fifth-grader who followed a last-minute replacement ref to his car just to tell him he needs new glasses. One or the other.