As you watch the final rounds of this year’s college basketball tournament, there will surely be a moment when you erupt over a referee’s call. But before you curse the refs, take a split-second (the amount of time a ref has to make the call) to consider how difficult it would be to apply a 100-page rule book to a fast-paced game played by ten large, quick, emotional, energetic adolescents. As author Bob Katz learned in researching his profile of veteran NCAA referee Ed Hightower, officiating a college basketball game requires a mix of vision, analysis, quick thinking, and calm nerves that is pretty much unteachable. Not only does the ref need to know when to hit the whistle, he also has to know when not to.

 

Referee Ed Hightower (Edwardsville Intelligencer)

Referee Ed Hightower (Edwardsville Intelligencer)

 

There’s never been a perfectly refereed college basketball game, and there never will be. With the possible exception of a baseball pitcher’s vaunted “perfect game,” team sports do not lend themselves to such gemlike paragons of performance. Hank Nichols, who served as NCAA supervisor of officials for twenty-two years and is the only college basketball referee to have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, does, however, have a vision of what that imaginary perfect game might, from the beleaguered referees’ perspective, consist of: “Both teams play zone defense,” he quipped, “and the offense makes every shot.”

Moments of clear-cut vindication…are the refs’ equivalent of a game-winning shot, and they occur every bit as infrequently. The lion’s share of officiating is spent without fanfare, without, if all goes well, any attention whatsoever. In stark contrast to the typical player’s dream of getting showered with boisterous applause, it is the referee’s wish to be met only with respectful silence or maybe a handshake afterward from the losing coach. A ref’s game is spent methodically, painstakingly establishing boundaries, play by play by play, making the calls that are necessary to manage the flow and maintain fairness. It’s a far better game if those calls are indisputably correct.

Coaches know that. Players know that. And so do the NCAA and the major conferences that make a surprisingly large investment of time and resources in the quality control of officiating. The unfathomable X factor may be real. The ability to instantaneously cut through the chaos may be innate. But there’s plenty that can be observed, and quantified, and measured.

 

The more I watched Ed Hightower in action and viewed the morass of intangibles that referees confront, the more I was struck by the many different ways there are to get it wrong (not that he does), and the many ways there are to be proven wrong (not that he often is). Attaching an asterisk to all but the most clear-cut calls would almost seem more forthright.

Psychologist Dan Simons, who is also engaged in a research project focusing on soccer officiating and analyzing the factors that contribute to a mistaken call (physical distance from play, divided attention), believes that referees periodically are called on to make decisions that encompass more visual information than they can adequately process in real time. Simons offered an example from baseball, the call that must be made on a runner being thrown out at first base: “There are three events occurring simultaneously at slightly different locations, and umpires must perceive all three. Has the runner’s foot touched the bag? Is the first baseman’s foot on the base? When did the ball hit the glove? You’ve got to know, did the runner’s foot hit the bag before the ball hit the glove? Doing that requires split-second timing, paying attention to two things that aren’t in the same location. It’s remarkably hard.”

Basketball referees, Simons explained, are often in comparably complex predicaments, when confronting the block/charge call, for example. “And the refs [unlike baseball umpires] are often running while doing this,” he added.

Fifteen thousand fans shouting with blood-curdling fervor, the bedlam approaching “can’t hear yourself think” decibel levels. On the court, ten pumped-up athletes jostle, veer, cut, slap, swirl, poke, spin, stumble, leap, and dive. Stuff happens, some of it intentional, some the result of honest accident. The line between right and wrong, permissible and not, is as slippery as liquid mercury spilled from a broken thermometer. How to determine amid a blurred frenzy of sensory distractions that what you think you saw is, in fact, what you saw? And how then to decide, with no additional delay, that what was seen merits your intervention?

I pressed Hightower and others to explain to me in layman’s terms exactly what it takes to instantaneously gather such a vast array of visual data, simultaneously contextualize it, and then swiftly render a judgment that is unequivocal and assured.

Privately, I was continuing to chew over this notion that a referee’s accumulated wisdom represents something special, even unique, with at least as much instructive value for us noncombatants as are allegedly contained in the countless parables spun from athletic and coaching glory. The quest to create order and achieve fairness in a hypercompetitive environment struck me as fertile soil for producing worthy insights, with widespread benefits. The very methods by which this quest for order and fairness was pursued, and the array of split-second judgments required to make it work, were, or so I told myself, potentially a valuable commodity with broad application to ordinary everyday functions.

Selling a call? A perfect concept to be used by elected officials, management consultants, parents.

Taking ownership of the play? Essential for sales managers, stock brokers, CEOs.

Whistle patience? Indispensable for civil engineers, venture capitalists, parents.

Mindfulness of whistle consequence? Just what the doctor ordered for prosecutors, newspaper editors, therapists, parents again.

An “Idiot’s Guide to Decision Making under Pressure” was sort of what I had in mind, an everyday primer for the common man who’ll never wear the zebra jersey. Who wouldn’t benefit from honing an ability to be clear-eyed and decisive (and correct!) amid turbulent conditions? What I’d imagined was a package of carefully delineated, easy-to-follow steps (Five Steps, Seven Steps, whatever!) condensed in a format similar to what’s found in popular, cleverly illustrated guides to, say, finding your perfect mate.

Hightower was of little help. You’d have thought I was asking a fish how it learned to swim. A ref’s ability to cut through the chaos to discern essential truths, an acumen so potentially valuable to so many, was not a topic on which he was prepared to be analytical or reflective. It was a reprise of the frustrations in discussing the get-it factor. He got it. I couldn’t.

Hank Nichols, another career educator, a former dean of education at Villanova, shrugged off my inquiry with the insouciance of Kevin Durant holding a postgame press conference in which he allowed that his forty-three-point outing was nothing more than one of those fortunate nights when his shot happened to be falling. “You just have to be able to do it,” was as close as Nichols came to an explanation.

These refs’ apparent inability to articulate precisely the intricate processes demanded by their craft struck me, curiously, as perhaps another aspect of the invisible gorilla syndrome. The act of concentrating with such ferocity on getting each call right consumed them completely, and required their complete attention. They had little cognitive capacity to spare for distinctly secondary questions, as they saw it, concerning how they were able to get it right. It was a question in my foreground but nowhere close to theirs.

Referee Jamie Luckie reported that he practices a three-stage mental-discipline technique that he’s found to be useful. First, observe the play. Second, take a mental photograph of the play. Third, decide: whistle or no whistle. This process can consume no more than half a second. “Like clapping three times.” He smacked his hands crisply to illustrate the precision, “Play, picture, decision.”

OK, finally some headway. I asked Luckie if that methodology could be parsed into simple instructions for the lay population. “Can you actually teach that?”

Luckie shook his head apologetically. “I really don’t know.”

 

You’d never guess from all the accusations hurled from grandstands about their incompetence that referees in top-flight college basketball conferences are subjected to an extraordinarily rigorous evaluation process. Nearly every call and every significant non-call they make during the season — yes, during the entire season — is reviewed, analyzed, and graded. Each game is evaluated by an observer assigned by league supervisors to watch it in person or on TV. The observer records each call and notes its apparent validity, on a 1, 2, or 3 basis as though it were a middle school history essay (not, it should be added, as though it were a math test with cut-and-dried, right-wrong answers). After each game, league officials review the video of the game for the same purpose.

Within twenty-four hours after each game, each referee must complete and submit to the league a confidential evaluation concerning the performance of his two partners. Within forty-eight hours after the game, an online video file is created for the officials to access. These video clips are selected by an administrator at the conference headquarters or the supervisor of officials, and are meant to direct the recipient refs’ attention to calls that the conference wants reviewed. Typically, there are between ten and fifteen of these per game. In addition, the NCAA rigorously evaluates the refs during each tournament game, and these evaluations play a vital role in which refs move forward in their separate yet parallel quest to make it to the Final Four. Each call is subjected to a pass-fail grade (correct/incorrect), and the refs are issued a “report card” after the game in which their individual whistles are identified by the nature of the call (HORB — hit on rebound, RPP — rough post play, TMC — too much contact, HOS — hit on shot, IS — illegal screen, OTB — over the back, etc.) and time-coded so the sequence can be easily reviewed on the accompanying video file.

At the end of each game, the referee receives an aggregate grade, “100” being perfect. Refs are entitled to contest their evaluations, and sometimes they do. Hightower told of a recent instance where a Big Ten supervisor, in his annotation to the online video of an Illinois-Nebraska game, had questioned a flagrant 1 foul Hightower had called on an Illinois breakaway near the end of game (“flagrant 1” being a recent replacement for an “intentional” foul, penalized by awarding the victimized team two free throws plus possession of the ball).

Hightower responded, via e-mail, that he felt Illinois had a clear path to the hoop and, if allowed to score, would have put the game away. On further review, the supervisor saw it the way Hightower had called it. Not all complaints get settled in the referees’ favor. Here the ref is just another plaintiff hoping for a fair hearing.

Some may find it ironic that such subjective assessments (Was the call right, wrong, or justified? Was it a 1, 2, or 3? Was the ref’s aggregate score for the game a 90, or an 85?) are superimposed on the necessarily subjective judgments (block or charge? over the back? in the act of shooting?) referees must make in the performance of their duties. Ironic perhaps, but an indispensable part of the quality-control process.

Plenty of vocations insist on rigorous assessment of their practitioners — and should. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, firefighters, social workers, and others mandate stringent standards for maintaining professional credibility. Many professions — police, nursing, aviation — systematically test and assess to make certain their personnel are equipped for the challenges ahead. But there are few, if any, professions in which people already successful in the field are scrutinized so closely while they perform, each time they perform.

Such scrutiny will only intensify as new technologies become available. In a move with likely repercussions for college basketball officials, the NBA recently announced it would begin employing sophisticated, six-camera data-tracking systems to monitor its referees. The SportVU systems can follow the movements of all ten players, all three refs, plus the ball, and do so in twenty-five frames-per-second high-definition video. In effect, it can track every moment on the hardwood all the time. It will enable the NBA to grade each on-court official based on how consistently and early he gets into position and whether the calls made from these positions are appropriate, given the ref’s sight lines. The NBA has already started using the cameras to check on such previously problematic areas as the enforcement of defensive three-second violations (defensive players lingering too long in the lane can be difficult to monitor for refs surveying other activities).

“We will use whatever data and means we can to improve our referees,” declared Steve Hellmuth, the NBA’s executive vice president of operations and technology. “The refs haven’t been tracked before. Now for the first time, they will be.”

[. . .]

 

Clearly, there are aspects of officiating that do not neatly lend themselves to precise evaluation. Some crucial qualities, maybe the most crucial ones, may best flourish if they’re unbridled, rather than regulated and tightly controlled. It’s not that rules are, as the adage goes, meant to be broken. Rather, there are so darn many of them.

The men’s basketball rules consume nearly 100 pages in the current NCAA rule book, covering nearly every imaginable contingency with finely wrought descriptive wording that valiantly attempts, as does the U.S. tax code, to leave no doubt. Take, for example, this definition of “closely guarded,” a definition with significant implications for a variety of potential infractions: “A player in control of the ball in the front court only while holding or dribbling the ball is closely guarded when his opponent is in a guarding stance at a distance not exceeding 6 feet. This distance shall be measured from the forward foot or feet of the defender to the forward foot or feet of the opponent.” Or this one pertaining to continuous possession: “Continuous motion applies to a try for field goal or free throw, but shall have no significance unless there is a foul by the defense during the interval that begins when the habitual throwing movement starts a try or with the touching on a tap and ends when the ball is clearly in flight.”

Each rule is useful for its own distinct purpose. Each is a thoughtful response to styles of play or tactics that threaten to tarnish an idealized vision of how the sport should be fairly and optimally performed. As often happens, the profusion of rule refinements intended to preserve the essential spirit of the game can threaten to overwhelm their original purpose. They’ve become like an uninvited dinner guest who demands an outsized portion, plus impeccable service, and will not leave.

A strain of the old less-government-is-best-government philosophy can creep in. “Good officials don’t care about the rule book,” argued Digger Phelps, the former Notre Dame coach and current ESPN color commentator who admitted to wondering if the sport was better off in simpler times. “Shirts against skins worked pretty well,” Digger asserted, perhaps overlooking the impact of crafty coaches, himself included, in provoking the need for greater regulation.

The 2012–13 season saw the average number of points scored per team, per game, in Division 1 (67.5) drop to the lowest level in thirty-one years. Not good. Not good for whom? Not good for the NCAA franchise. Can something be done, rule-wise, to reverse this trend? One plausible culprit: defenders getting away with too much benefit of the doubt on the block/charge call. Proposed corrective: a further refinement of the relevant rule. Starting the following season, the definition of “blocking” was adjusted to include any move by a defender into the path of the offensive player “once he has started his upward motion with the ball to attempt a field goal or pass.” From the ref’s perspective, this rule adjustment added an additional level of challenge to what was already a very tough call to make.

That said, the referee’s task, like that of the police officer patrolling a stressful beat, is to enforce the laws, not to write them. And what refs tend to believe is what cops tend to know: laws are crucial to a civilized society, and the final decision as to when the whistle should be blown or when it’s best to let it go should be left to them with their streetwise experience. If the goal is the establishment of a just and orderly environment, why not permit a little flexibility in administering rules?

This conundrum was wonderfully dramatized in Herman Melville’s classic novella, Billy Budd. The story takes place in 1797 aboard a British Royal Navy ship riddled with tension. The HMS Bellipotent feared an attack by the French navy, and the ship’s officers were on edge from reports of mutinies at sea on other ships. Billy Budd is a popular, virtuous young sailor who is mercilessly antagonized by John Claggart, the brutal master-at-arms. Claggart falsely accuses Billy of conspiring to mutiny. Infuriated and thwarted from verbally defending himself by an intense stutter, which Claggart had repeatedly mocked, Billy lashes out with a swift punch. Claggart topples backwards, cracking his skull on one of the ship’s cannons, and is killed. Everyone on board, including the ship’s captain, is of the opinion that Billy is essentially innocent, guilty of nothing more than justifiable self-defense. But the laws that govern ships at sea, in light of the extreme need for maximum order, are ironclad. “Struck dead by an Angel,” decrees the captain. “Yet the Angel must hang!”

“The power of elasticity” or “elastic power” is the how this principle — or absence of it in the case of Billy Budd — is known to sports officials. It means that in certain situations the referee can turn the rulebook into something malleable, or render decisions that are not specifically covered in the rulebook. Where the rules are specific, there’s no flexibility. Step out-of-bounds, play is dead. Where the rule requires judgment — incidental contact, for example — judgment is required to determine if the rule was violated. In its broadest sense, the concept of elasticity enables officials to occasionally employ common sense to override or temper strict adherence to the rulebook.

Referees don’t make the rules and, like cops, they don’t always agree with all of them. I’d heard their occasional grumblings about wishing they were empowered to exercise judgment more often, especially when it came to resorting to video review. “Good officials will find a reason to go to the monitor when they need to,” observed Rich Falk, formerly of the Big Ten, by which he meant that within the strict guidelines for employing video review some real-time wiggle room could occasionally be created.

Similarly, Falk noted that a spontaneous eruption from a crowd can signal to a savvy ref, one with a connoisseur’s ear, that something’s amiss. Refs are inured to all manner of booing and cheering. They understand that wily coaches playing at home are forever trying to provoke their audience into making noise. But sometimes a spontaneous outburst from the crowd is a legitimate, authentic response to a call about which the ref already had some misgivings. An example of this occurred during an Indiana versus Northwestern game I watched with Falk.

A fight for the rebound under the basket sent the ball skittering out-of-bounds and it was awarded to Indiana, the visiting team. The crowd instantly let loose with a loud, prolonged choral howl, wholly impromptu. With the ball out-of-bounds, there was a moment to reflect, and the sustained anger from the grandstand gave Hightower and his colleagues a moment to confer. The coaches fretted. The players meandered. The call was reversed. “People up in the stands, let’s face it, sometimes have a better view of the play than we do,” Falk explained.

This unstated license to employ elasticity on rare occasions, to be wise interpreters of what the laws are intended to accomplish, can entrust elite referees with something like emergency powers. It was not a practice for rookies. It was not a practice for the inexperienced or the spineless. Nor for robotic sensing devices. The power of elasticity was reserved for humans, and only for the most capable among them.

 

I mentioned Billy Budd to Hightower, not being sure if he knew the story (it was probably not part of core curriculum in Edwardsville [the Illinois city where Hightower is superintendent of schools], or that of many school districts). He had, as it turned out, a story of his own.

The game was the 2008 NCAA championship game, Memphis versus Kansas. Led by freshman phenom Derrick Rose, Memphis was up by two points. With sixteen seconds left in regulation time, Memphis’s Chris Douglas-Roberts missed two consecutive free throws that might have effectively iced it for the Tigers. When a time-out was called several seconds later, Douglas-Roberts, upset with himself, grabbed the ball and angrily slammed it down. The ball rocketed fifteen feet above the court.

This fit of bad-boy petulance was precisely the kind of petty juvenile tantrum, acted out in front of the largest possible national viewership, that the NCAA was avid to crack down on. Gleeful at their impending good fortune, the Kansas bench and its battalion of assistant coaches immediately began yelling for a technical foul to be called.

Hightower was the lead ref in the game. He understood perfectly well that a technical was warranted. As much as any referee working the major conferences, he firmly believed these student-athletes suffered lasting personal harm through the myriad ways they’d been coddled and excused throughout their young lives, simply due to their remarkable basketball skills. Granting exceptions to star athletes for misbehavior was not Superintendent Hightower’s style.

Moreover, he understood perfectly well that in the eyes of any by-the-book NCAA administrator who might review his performance, an emphatic, no-nonsense whistle was exactly what this transgression called for. The Memphis kid behaved like a brat. Slap him with a “T.”

But this was the national championship game. Ten seconds remained on the clock. Douglas-Roberts had done something remarkably dumb. He’d done it in flagrant violation of the rules. In plain view of millions of viewers. But he was only a kid. And his stupid, self-indulgent act, showing off his disappointment by slamming the ball, had been, in the broader scheme, nothing worse than merely dumb.

Hightower retrieved the ball. He marched directly up to the 6′ 7″ Douglas-Roberts. He fixed him with a stare of cold disapproval, and snapped, “What are you doing?”

It was a stern school principal’s firm and final warning: grow up, show respect, play ball. No technical was called.

“It’s not about the letter of the law,” Hightower later explained. “What was the kid’s intent? It wasn’t to embarrass me. He was frustrated. He’d just missed a key free throw in the national championship game. You’ve got to understand the moment, and what’s happening out there before you put air in the whistle.”

 

Katz

Excerpted from The Whistleblower: Rooting for the Ref in the High-Stakes World of College Basketball, by Bob Katz, published by ForeEdge. 

Bob Katz has written on sports and culture for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and other publications. He is the author of three previous books, including the novel Third and Long.