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Stars in stripes

Would anyone in the U.S. visit a referee hall of fame?

Posted: Wednesday September 21, 2005 1:09PM; Updated: Wednesday September 21, 2005 1:09PM
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Pierluigi Collina
Pierluigi Collina was an Italian league and international soccer referee for nearly 20 years before his abrupt retirement in August.
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All right, American sports fans: Could you name a referee or umpire? Could you possibly recognize one if he were out of uniform? No way.

But in Europe, everybody knows one referee: Pierluigi Collina, the famous soccer maestro of Bologna, Italy. The victim of a disease known as alopecia, Collina is completely hairless. His bald head is accentuated by two headlight eyes. He has often been the most recognizable person on the field. Players have asked for his autograph. He has even been identified as a sex symbol. Yes, a ref: sexy.

Collina owns rich endorsement contracts, and when he turned 45 this year, the age at which Italian referees are arbitrarily put out to pasture, Collina was given a waiver. No one could bear to see him go.

By contrast, in American football, not a single referee has ever made it into the NFL Hall of Fame. Eight umpires have been elected to Cooperstown and 12 into the basketball Valhalla, but perhaps our best and best known ref of recent vintage -- our basketball Collina -- Mendy Rudolph, is still locked out, 26 years after his death.

Mendy was as colorful as he was talented. He was Barrymore in stripes, Bogart with a whistle. During timeouts he would remove sweat from his brow with a flick of the wrist that was as dramatic as any star player's best move. But Mendy liked the high life, especially gambling. He never bet on NBA games, but apparently, he pays for his peccadillo in perpetuity. Refs, you see, must walk a fine line.

Miller Lite beer, which, by the by, once featured Mendy in a commercial -- "Heinsohn, you're outta the bar!" -- has a new campaign out, lampooning referees, who go about calling slapstick penalties on beer drinkers who dare hoist another brand. NASO -- the National Association of Sports Officials -- can live with this. The organization's president, Barry Mano, says, after all, referees don't want to appear stuffy.

But since officials are so often overlooked for posterity -- especially NFL referees -- Mano wants his organization to start its own officials' hall of fame. Of course, he appreciates that it would have to be a "virtual" hall of fame. Who, he opines, would ever actually visit a real hall of fame for referees?

Pity the poor umps. Now Collina himself has flown too close to the sun. His latest endorsement was a million-dollar deal with Opel, the car company. But Opel also is the main sponsor of AC Milan, one of Italy's top major-league teams -- a conflict of interest.

The authorities told Pierluigi he still could work the minor leagues, but he told them to take a hike. He took his yellow card and his red card and walked away from soccer, pride and sex appeal still intact.

As an Italian female psychologist declares: "The referee has a magnitude of virility that the players, with their earrings, their bleached hair and their showgirl poses, have progressively lost."

Now that is callin' 'em the way you see 'em.