By Jerry Grunska
Sometimes games are less than games; they are a mish-mash of horrendous play and lopsided scores. Officials can either contribute to the mayhem or else help to tone it down and ease it to a comfortable conclusion.
Premise number one: We don’t want to subvert any basic rules. We are obliged to observe the rules. Premise number two: There is a spirit to the rules, undefined areas of ambiguity, in which considerations of context should be taken into account when applying the code. That means that borderline calls – ones that could go either way – should result in favorable decisions for the team that exhibits qualities of ineptitude and which may be way behind in the score.
But that simplistic statement presents complications too. Here are examples:
A basketball team opens the game by scoring 15 straight points.
A soccer team punches in a trio of goals shortly after the opening kickoff.
A football team picks up fumbles and scores a pair of touchdowns before the other team has run a single play.
A baseball team scores seven runs in its first at bat, against none for the opposition.
Officials first of all should not act in haste and jump to questionable conclusions. Teams can come back from early disadvantages, and they should be allowed to have that chance.
Truly, there are no borderline foul balls back to the screen in baseball and softball, nor are there borderline baskets in basketball. But there are borderline pitches and borderline traveling violations. Should the officials begin making distinctions to even up competition right off the bat? Probably not. The initial burst of superiority may be a fluke; it could be an illusion. A game must move into a pattern before it is evident that one team has overwhelming skill.
An arbitrary guide is of little use, but as a possible reminder let’s put it at a four-touchdown lead early in the second quarter; a dozen-run advantage in the third inning; a point spread of 20 to open the second quarter; or four goals at the close of the first half.
Officials can contribute to a smooth flow in such games by personally hustling the ball into play, by moving swiftly themselves to cover play action and by encouraging the team that is woefully in arrears (often by gestures rather than by voice).
The danger for an official in blowouts is losing concentration. One cannot operate in a lackadaisical manner and at the same usher a game to a satisfactory ending. Premise number three, then: You cannot stop runs from scoring or baskets from pouring through the nets, but you can have an effect (avoid the word control) on player behavior.
For instance, you can prevent the winners from taunting or puffing themselves up. You can aid the losers in adding resolve and determination to their efforts. You can also deal directly with coaches who seem to revel in running up the score and humiliating opponents.
Another practice to avoid is giving players, coaches and spectators the impression that you’re bored or would rather be anywhere else. Slumped shoulders, sloppy signals and a lack of hustle must be avoided.
Remember also that the tide can turn quickly. Not every team simply rolls over when it falls behind early. A grand slam, a touchdown and recovered onside kick or an injury to a key player on the leading team can change the complexion of a game in short order. It’s often difficult to regain focus once it has been lost because it seems the outcome has been decided. The key, then, is to stay alert and not allow your guard to fall.
But if a rally doesn’t occur, how can you help the game along? Borderline calls go against the team that is substantially ahead. Minor transgressions of the rules that are not potentially harmful may be interpreted in favor of the team with lesser skill. That’s not saying you should wink at the rules. Do not cheat. Rather, if a runner moves slightly out of the line between bases to elude a tag and that act aids the team that is behind, such a move may be permitted with no clear harm derived. That is what making a fine distinction means. A swipe tag sometimes does not nick the runner’s foot is another case of making a judicious distinction.
If a runner plunges into the line in football and is momentarily stopped, a distinction can be made about whether the play has ended.
The whole approach for officials working a game with a pronounced point differential is making careful distinctions. For officials, a game need not get out of hand.
Jerry Grunska is a frequent Referee contributor. A retired educator, he lives in Evergreen, Colo.