Ask pro or major college officials if they have a nightmare media relations scenario, and they’re likely to reply, “Yes. Having one of my calls show up on SportsCenter.”
Since networks such as ESPN seemingly relish the opportunity to share missed officiating calls with the world replete with sarcastic commentary, it’s 15 seconds of fame the official can do without. A day off the highlight shows is a day of sunshine.
Not that the high school official has it any easier. More games are showing up on local, statewide or even national TV, giving the amateur official similar unwanted exposure. Despite the fact that the average prep official has less experience than the “big boys and girls” and less formal training, the media still expects officiating perfection.
The media’s perception and treatment of officials was the subject of a panel discussion at the 2010 NASO Summit in Minneapolis. “Your Officials, the Media and You” was moderated by Mike Pereira, former NFL vice president of officiating. Shortly before the Summit, Pereira crossed over to the “dark side” by joining Fox Sports as an officiating analyst for that network’s NFL coverage.
Serving on the panel were John Adams, NCAA national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating; Hank Zaborniak Jr., a Big Ten football official and assistant director of the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA); and Mike Max, a sportscaster with WCCO-TV in Minneapolis.
Max, a former official in his own right, said part of the disconnect between officials and the media is that there is a sort of cloak of mystery about officials. “We think we know referees and we generally don’t,” Max said.
He cited the case of Jim Joyce, the MLB umpire whose missed call in a game last June cost Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game. Joyce was vilified by the public and the media until they saw his acknowledgement of the error. Max said Joyce’s sincere distress over missing the call changed public perception overnight.
“Once we found out how human he was, we began to like him,” Max explained.
“Once we found out that he tries to get every play right, we began to like him even more. I think that there’s a difference between the perception of referees and officials and reality. And the difference is there’s not enough transparency. We don’t get to know them well enough.
“Once you get to know them, once you understand how hard they work and how hard they try to get it right the perception of them changes,” Max added. “But I don’t think the public has that perception. I think they did because of Jim Joyce. (In) an isolated situation like that, they got to know him.”
It’s a Tough Job
Pereira said he found success using media relations to educate fans that officiating is hard work. “The fans always felt like (the officials) showed up at 10 a.m. on Sunday. And then they worked the game. And then they went to the airport afterward and flew home,” Pereira said. “They didn’t have any idea that they were there by 2 p.m. on Saturday and they met for three hours and met again on Sunday morning before they went to the stadium. And then they had a DVD on the airplane on the way home to start evaluating their work. And they had to take a rules test every week. (They saw) it’s an ongoing process.”
Unfortunately not all media coverage of officials and officiating is that positive. Adams says he is bombarded by calls or text messages from sportscasters who, while games are in progress, try to reach him for comment on the officials in the games they’re broadcasting.
“If I saw it and it was really all screwed up, I tell them I’m not watching,” Adams said with a wry smile. “I have all their numbers plugged in so I know (who’s calling).”
In an effort to educate the media about officiating and to hopefully head off some of those calls, Adams meets with announcers before the season. “I figured out that ESPN has 1,600 games on of men’s college basketball,” Adams said. “I started meeting with the ESPN folks, both the production people and their talent people, talking about what our initiatives were, what our standards were, how we select people, directed them to the right folks in the right conferences.
“One of the things as a manager of officials that we miss is the ability to use the media to our advantage,” Adams asserted. “I think that there’s real value to cultivating good relationships with the media in the high profile on television. I don’t think it can hurt.”
Pereira agreed with Adams. “When I joined the NFL I think I was a typical official,” said Pereira, who came off the field to take the position in the league office. “I didn’t like the media. But I realized that if we’re ever going to try to improve the perception of officiating, that was the group that we had to attack because of the fact that they have the last word.”
In an effort to educate the media, Pereira said he “treated them almost like a group of officials. I made training tapes for them almost on a weekly basis and did all that stuff. And I found out (sportscasters) really want to be right, but they just don’t know. They can’t be expected to understand (the) rulebook. It’s too complicated. So to expect them to know it is difficult.”
Zaborniak found himself at the center of a media firestorm in 2005 even though he had nothing to do with the call. Officials in his state working a high school football game told a coach that one of his players, Bobby Martin, could not play. Martin was born without legs.
“When asked about why they didn’t let him go in the game, the official said, ‘Well, he wasn’t wearing shoes and that’s required equipment,’” Zaborniak recalled. Negative comments from print and electronic media “went on for about six months, of how stupid we are and how terrible we are and so on.”
Yet Zaborniak concurred with Adams and Pereira that the media can be an ally even in otherwise negative circumstances. “We had a state tournament basketball game where, on the last-second shot, it appeared the ball was (headed toward the basket before the buzzer). I saw on the television monitor that it was a little closer than I thought. I found that in fact when the lights on the backboard came on, the ball remained on the (shooter’s) fingertips for a little less than three-tenths of a second.
“I asked the official what he had,” Zaborniak continued. “He said, ‘I heard the horn after the ball had left her hand.’ We went to the media and said, ‘This is what you’re going to see on TV; here’s our rule; here’s what we saw; make up your own mind.’ And they were very, very positive toward the official. He may have made the correct call based on sound and so on and so forth. So what could have been a huge issue for us turned out to be just kind of a little ripple.”
What can the officiating industry do to foster such positive media relations? Max said it’s all about communication.
“(Give the media) as much transparency as you can give us without violating the integrity of what it is you’re trying to do,” he said. “Explain to us as best you can and then tell us why you can’t explain what it is you can’t explain.”
Max said he has long-established relationships with MLB umpires Tim Tschida and Jeff Nelson. “I can go to them regularly and ask them questions,” Max said. “We have great conversations, some on the record and some off the record about what’s going on. But it gives me everything I need to know going forward.”
A character in the movie JFK spoke the line, “People are suckers for the truth.” Max said that applies to sports fans as well. “Once people hear (the official’s side of an issue), 95 percent of the time, they’ll side with you. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I see. I see why that happened the way it did.’ Or, ‘I didn’t understand that rule,’” Max said.
That message is not lost on Adams. “I think the greatest gift we can give the media is access,” he declared. “And I think the next thing that you ought to learn is to begin every conversation with, ‘This is for background and not for publication,’ or, ‘This is off the record. And then I can give you comment you can use and quote me, but I want to give you some history,’ to (discuss) a conflict that you might know that exists somewhere somehow before you give them a definitive quotable answer.”
There are situations when an officiating error is so egregious that the outcry for a pound of flesh becomes deafening. If officials are disciplined for missed calls, should the information be shared with the media, if for no reason other than to calm the waters?
“Sometimes it would be fairly tempting,” Zaborniak admitted. “I’d have to say in our case with the OHSAA, generally we’re able to take a step back, take a look at everything, answer folks’ questions honestly and openly. But we generally don’t allow the media to make our decisions for us. It’s got to be that way.”
In Zaborniak’s case, such public discipline could result in an official leaving the avocation. At a time when many areas of the country face shortages of officials, even one lost official is too many.
“We’ve done some studies and one of the things we find is that generally one of the top three reasons that officials don’t like officiating, is the lack of respect that they feel,” he said. “That comes sometimes from the local newspaper that puts (an official’s) name in because he didn’t do something they thought he should do.”
Announcing to the world that an official has been suspended or otherwise reprimanded might be considered a juicy scoop by some reporters. Don’t count Max among them.
“I used to (think it was a good story) and I don’t think so anymore,” he said. “I think we need to trust the leadership that they’re going to put in place the best officials possible. There’s enough emotion going into every game that we don’t need to turn some of the attention on, ‘Oh, look. We’ve got the guys that were suspended and this is their first game back from their suspension, therefore they must not be very good at what they do.’”
Such public acknowledgment destroys public confidence in all officials, Max asserted. “If their people didn’t like them, then why should we like them as fans?” he posited. “Therefore, we’re going to start looking for them to do things wrong. Now you create a frenzy with the media. I don’t think that serves anybody. I don’t think it helps the game. I think it gives the coaches more reason, more leverage, to go after officials and I don’t think that helps any game anywhere. I think you’re better off letting these people patrol it and you patrol it and decide we don’t need to know.”
Adams not only shares the name of a forefather who was instrumental in the formation of laws that still govern this country, but shares his namesake’s view on freedom of information. He asserts it isn’t wise to attempt to restrict media access to information.
“I don’t think we ought to try and control it,” he said. “I happen to think you can’t have it both ways. Either you have free speech or you don’t have free speech. We happen to live in a country that advocates free speech.”
By the same token, Adams expressed frustration at the often misguided focus on sports in the country. “I’m amazed every morning when I pick up the paper and there’s a story about sports on the front page and we haven’t spent enough time on a Marine second lieutenant who was killed in Afghanistan and his family,” he said.
“How important is all this stuff?” Adams continued. “I think it’s important. I think there are a lot of livelihoods that are involved. But at the end of the day it’s a game. Officials almost universally and unilaterally do the best they can night in and night out. They’re human beings and they make mistakes. I think dealing with the media is part of the job. But also we ought to remind them from time to time that it is a game. This isn’t life and death. Where did the civility go in this business?”
The Will to Excel
Perhaps because of his own officiating background, and the fact that his father is a retired official and his brother currently officiates, Max has a better grasp on officiating than a lot of the media. But even he was taken by surprise during a radio interview with an umpire.
“He said he’s very competitive,” Max recalled. “And I thought, ‘Competitive? You’re an umpire.’ He says, ‘I’m competing against perfection every day.’ I thought that was a great statement because it gave the mind-set of what a good umpire or official should have. You’re competing against yourself and you know if you’re doing it right or not.”
Officials do know that even correct calls will be subject to criticism, in the media and in the public view. Yet Max offered that the media should celebrate officials as well.
“They don’t give out trophies to officials,” he said. “You’re never going to get the joy of a touchdown or the joy of a great call. That’s not the way we’re set up. I do think the media can do a good job in showing the behind-the-scenes stuff, showing why it is that people want to officiate, showing the need as there always is for officials and why that is.”
The media and officials: Can we all get along? Maybe, like any long-term relationship, there have to be squabbles in order to enjoy the good times. Here’s hoping there are more pats than spats.
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