Forgive me for being repetitious, but recent events require me to be just that. Three times during the past eight years, I used this space to offer comment about the increasing use of suspensions of officials. And now, we add the first of what will undoubtedly not be an isolated occurrence, namely, a termination during a season (as done recently by the NFL). This polar extreme is a logical outgrowth of the searing climate in which officiating accountability is being nurtured.
Allow me some thoughts yet again: Suspensions and highly-visible terminations will not lead to better officiating. They can instill fear. They will do that. As activist-artist Jenny Holzer has stated: “Fear is the most elegant weapon. Your hands are never messy.”
With respect to termination, including any that would occur during a season, it would be folly to believe that such an occurrence would not lead to severe external effects on the broad officiating community. Normally, staff turnover is conducted at the close of a season. That is to be expected. That can be done with some quietude because the goal should be to improve overall staff performance by enlisting new talent, not enabling the trashing of someone at the public landfill-site known as social media.
A further point about terminations: “never” is not an option and thus, “when” has to be carefully determined. There are and will be times that we officials so botch up what we’ve been asked to do, or that we consistently do not meet an agreed upon standard of performance, that being axed is a reasonable option. This path though is fraught with snares. Employee-officials are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement and those that represent them will surely be coiled and ready to react. Officials who serve “at the pleasure” though have much more exposure.
There are good and true reasons to “sit or ship” officials. Violating the highest ethical standard is one. Proven lack of impartiality is another. Having a financial stake in a game outcome is a third. There are a few others. Mistakes in judgment and mistakes in a rule application, unless patterned or unabating, are not included in my list. Here is why.
Officials are to be accountable. We welcome that. If I work a game and screw up a rule then I should expect something bad to happen to me. A downgrade is the term of art. Yes, I deserve a downgrade. A good program will have different tiers of downgrades. If my mistaken ruling or judgment call is egregious and leads to a game-changing outcome, then the tier of my downgrade moves into more grave territory. Understood.
Suspending or terminating officials for errors made during a game is a slick, steep slope, whether done at season end or especially mid-season. Quickly it leads to three things: first it becomes accepted practice in other leagues and conferences. Second, it creates an atmosphere in which coaches, conference administrators and the media will compare and contrast penalties resulting in arbitrary and ever more punitive decisions. Third it kills morale and breeds paranoia.
If a termination is to be the outcome, then such must be done in a way that leaves the official and management with dignity and character. After all, there is a life still to be lived. Officials are on a public stage at all levels; high school and college included. Being forcibly removed from that stage can lead one to feel demeaned and desolate. Care must be taken.
We need to redouble our efforts to stand up, stand for and stand behind the men and women who make the games possible. It is a big responsibility. It takes extraordinary courage.
Barry Mano, Publisher