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An assault to my senses

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Posted: Wednesday October 21, 1998 04:52 PM

 

The National Association of Sports Officials has advised members that their newest benefit will be ... assault insurance. This unique coverage has been worked up specifically for American referees. The reason is very simple: More and more sports officials are being physically attacked.

What is ironic, too, is that despite all the publicity that attends a nasty major-league incident, most of the increased violence directed at officials nowadays is at the lower, amateur levels of sport ... where, of course, sportsmanship is supposed to matter most. Sadly, more often than not, it is parents themselves who assault officials at games in which their children are playing.

On the major-league level, instant replay has proven that top officials make the right call an incredible amount of time. But because replay shows that sometimes referees are wrong, those few instances stand out and produce more irrational hyper-criticism.

However, at this same time when sports officials across the board have come in for this greater condemnation—even for violence—just for allegedly making the odd bad call, a group of NBA referees have been indicted for a real crime—tax fraud. Six have already pleaded guilty and been sentenced. What these officials did was exchange expense-account first-class airplane tickets for coach seats, then pocket the money differential, without reporting this income to the IRS.

Other officials in all sports are furious at the NBA refs. The guilty parties are, after all, the cream of the crop—and the best paid, too. Barry Mano, himself an official, editor of Referee magazine, tells me: "Officials around the country really feel let down by what the NBA referees did."

Yet there is the most curious public response which has quite confounded these same rank-and-file officials. What the NBA refs did—dishonestly, illegally—has created no backlash whatsoever from fans. Not even at NBA games last year did honest officials hear cracks about how they must be untrustworthy, like their cheatin' colleagues.

The officiating association expected, naturally, for their whole noble profession to be castigated. After all, officials are supposed to be Caesar's wife, men of integrity who, by their honor, can maintain the integrity of our games. But paradoxically: American fans seem to have been generally undisturbed by the illegal actions of sports officials, as private citizens—even though the trend is to grow angrier, even violent, toward these same men for making ordinary professional decisions in games. "It's amazing," Mano says. "All anybody seems to care about anymore are W's and L's." Wins and losses.

I don't have to belabor the obvious analogy here to the broad national response, which treats President Clinton's private behavior and political actions independently. But the way sports fans have acted toward referees supports that contradiction, indicating again how comfortably Americans now divide public people into two distinct and unconnected parts.

They say you can tell a great deal about a whole culture from its behavior toward its sports. If so, our attitude toward sports officials suggests that we place little value on the whole of personal character anymore and are only concerned with specific results.

These commentaries, which appear each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, are posted weekly by CNN/SI.  

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