The persistent war on officiating is driving out the good men and encouraging the bad. If games are to be handled well, coaches, clubs and crowds have to mend their wayward ways
March 26, 1962


Not long ago a football referee received from an American Marine captain an unsolicited award: a trophylike structure capped by the calcium-white skull of a Japanese war casualty. An inscription below identified the referee as the Biggest Bonehead of the Year. A statue without arms was presented to another referee in acknowledgment of his outrageous yardage measurements. There have since been less whimsical, more cogent attempts to put officials in their place, but the unfunny fact remains that referees of football and basketball games today are being accused of worse blunders than ever before.

There is ample evidence that some officials are guilty as charged. But there is just as much evidence available that not all the fault lies with the officials. Embattled coaches, whose behavior on the bench sometimes goads tense crowds to riot; pusillanimous administrators who fail to back up the officials; constantly changing rules and rule interpretations; and, finally, a distressing decline in athletic morality—all of these things have had a part in lowering the general level of officiating. So many good men have been driven out that the games now face a growing shortage of qualified officials.

Indications of lawlessness, whether caused by poor officials or the coaches, the players or the crowds, are not hard to find. A fusillade of beer cans and whisky bottles interrupted an already chaotic basketball game between NYU and Manhattan in Madison Square Garden three weeks ago. Texas police are now investigating the possibility that officials may be rigging Southwest Conference games. Football games last fall produced some celebrated gaffes by officials. In a Dallas-Boston American League game, Dallas, trailing 28-21, came to the Boston two-yard line with time running out. Quarterback Cotton Davidson tried a pass. A spectator ran into the end zone, arms flailing at the ball, semaphore fashion, and the pass fell incomplete. There was no call for a replay, and the game was over. In a game at Wisconsin, a long pass that put Utah in scoring position for a possible tie was called back when an ineligible receiver was detected downfield. "It ended in a 5," said the referee when Utah Captain Ed Pine challenged him to name the offending player's number. Pine's was 55, but he was flat on his back at the line of scrimmage; the only other player wearing a number ending in 5 was a fullback—and a most eligible receiver.

The Notre Dame-Syracuse result was and is still controvertible because of an official who mistakenly—as it turned out—awarded Notre Dame a chance for a postgame field goal.

These incidents are only a few of many that could be cited to mark a distressing trend: the public loss of faith in officiating and a major break in relations between coaches and officials. Both groups recognize the crisis, but they seem as blind to its real nature as men describing the elephant they have explored only by fingertip.

It may be helpful to examine the charges the coaches and officials make against each other. First, the coaches' case:

1) Officials are too old and too fat, and they are guessing on plays they can no longer keep up with. ("One was so overweight he couldn't run in our game at West Virginia," said Villanova's Jack Kraft after a basketball loss. "I've been an official myself. I know incompetence when I see it.")

2) Officials are "homers," i.e., less likely to bear witness against the sins of the home team. ("The home court advantage this season means more than ever in my 10 years of coaching," said John Benington of St. Louis University.)

3) Officials are either picky and whistle-prone or they are lax and allow anything short of the use of firearms. They seem to have no uniform standard. Only 15 fouls were called in the St. Louis-Ohio State game, which was especially rough ("I know darn well there were more than that," said OSU's Fred Taylor, exasperated); nine days later, 60 were called in the St. Louis-Notre Dame game. ("I don't think we could play the game that much differently," said St. Louis' John Benington.)

4) Officials tend to tighten up on crucial plays. (A Baltimore writer once questioned a National Football League official who stepped off a six-yard penalty. "He admitted he did it," said the writer, "knew he did it and couldn't explain why he didn't correct himself.")

The officials have their answers to criticism, Among them:

1) Coaches denounce officials only to cover up their own lack of success.

2) Officials' mistakes, though human and predictable, are exploited and caricatured in the press.

3) The games have changed—there is a bitter trend toward deliberate vicious-ness. It is, by this new code, a crime to foul only if you are caught. Officials alone cannot cope with this.

4) Spectators have become intolerant—and intolerable.

5) The "blackball" allows college coaches to act as judge and jury on officials. It is an intimidation that hovers over their jobs.

6) The pay isn't worth the abuse and anguish created by points 1, 2, 3,4 and 5.

How does it happen that the imminent anarchy that lies behind these accusations does not also threaten major league baseball? The answer to that question may provide the beginning of answers to some of the problems besetting college football and both amateur and professional basketball. Many years ago the authorities in major league baseball gave their umpires stature, authority and isolation. With the blessings of the people who hire them, these umpires will, for the sake of order, toss from a game the unruly $75,000-a-year man as quickly as they will the lowest-priced troublemaker. The spirit is remarkably amateur, but the effect is professional. Refusing to pander to the blood thirsts of crowds, the big leagues have managed to maintain discipline and to make fine money in the process.

The gravity of the criticism directed against them appalls many officials of the sports that are in trouble—and it should. "I'm worried," said Philadelphian Len Toff. "To create an uproar over officiating reflects on the integrity of the game." Lou Bonder, in a letter to Eastern College Athletic Conference Commissioner Asa Bushnell demanding censure of NYU's Coach Lou Rossini, complained: "I am a respected high school coach, teacher and experienced official. Some of the things Rossini said made me sound like a hood."

The cumulative effect of the coaches' oral broadsides is hardly surprising. A veteran of the Southeastern Conference said it has become almost impossible to get intelligent, educated men—young men who can run and who have competitive backgrounds—into collegiate officiating in the South. Although the NBA's Sid Borgia claims an official is paid to take abuse, "and the man who can't take it ought to get the hell out," several SEC officials got out last year because of attacks in newspapers. "I love the game," said one, "but I am not going to be slandered by a coach who needs an alibi."

The coaches' postgame remarks are only part of the story. Frenzied partisans often need look only as far as the bench to get their cues for baiting umpires. Coaches hop up and down and make enough noise to break goblets. "Helluva defense they got, hitting my guys on the forearm.... Surely you aren't going to let them throw rabbit punches all night.... Don't you guys ever call a foul?" Not every coach complains, of course. One in the minority was Andy Phillip, who stayed attached to the bench like a wood screw, win or lose, because he didn't want to provide a crutch for his players. He insisted his St. Louis Hawks keep silent on doubtful calls, and did so himself. This kind of squeamishness contributed to his being fired by Hawks Owner Ben Kerner in 1958.

All too often, referees are provided with too little security from the crowds. Several years ago Referee Al Lightner called off a California-USC game in Berkeley, with three minutes to play, when he was twice hit by "hot pennies" (pennies heated with a match or cigarette lighter.) The game was nationally televised, and for his action Lightner has been rewarded with few working dates since. In Logan, Utah the public address announcer broke into a Utah State game to warn that the referee could call technical fouls on the unruly crowd. The announcement was greeted with hoots of laughter. The officials meekly went on with the game. "I would be inclined to heap high praise on an official with the courage to call technicals on a basketball crowd," wrote a Salt Lake City sportswriter. "Of course, he'd never know it. He'd be dead."

Worse than the bad public behavior of coaches and crowds, however, has been a change in ethics among players. The official is faced and must reckon with a breed that fouls deliberately, and sometimes maliciously, and seems to have the sanction of his superiors to do so. If he is not sanctioned, he is at least not discouraged. "When I started refereeing in the '20s," says Paul Menton, now a Baltimore sports editor, "disqualifying a player called for action by the dean of men. It was considered important enough to go beyond the athletic department. Now you see an ejected player being slapped on the back by his teammates as though he were a hero."

Football has witnessed some brutal plays in recent years (e.g., Mike McKeever of USC's out-of-bounds "tackle" of Steve Bates in 1959 and Alabama Linebacker Darwin Holt's equally flagrant elbow in the face of Georgia Tech's Chuck Graning last season), but basketball has condoned a more surreptitious code, known around the NBA as "elbow ethics," and is equally culpable. Charley Eckman, now a college official but formerly a pro referee and coach, says he has never seen such vicious fouling as recently. "Five times [this season] I have seen players undercut when they were going in for a lay-up, and you shouldn't see that many undercuts in a lifetime. You can get killed that way."

Added to the trials of arbitration is the fact that football and basketball play has become faster and more complex. A basketball official runs upward of six miles a night, often at top speed. A football official must detect and call some 60 penalties with the quick use of 30 signals. There is much to take in. Movies, a boon to good football, have been the bane of officials. What was not seen in a game can be slowed down and rerun a thousand times at projection-room leisure. "If they don't stop officiating on film," says one southern referee, "they'll run the rest of us who have pride out of the business."

The extraordinary pressure of hometown crowds hasn't helped officials. A Big Ten survey put the home court advantage in basketball at 10 points, a reasonable figure. The figure is more "reasonable"—perhaps 10 points more—in towns and colleges where what is called "home cooking" has become notorious. Bill Scollin of the Big Five admits to a "little one-sidedness" by his brethren, but he thinks visiting teams can just as often blame travel weariness, strangeness of court, the effect of an antagonistic crowd and the difference in lighting.

Homers really prevail, he says, in those areas where local men work games. "Schools try to bring in outside officials, but [due to cost] it isn't always possible. Being human, local officials may favor their side. They have to face their friends the next day."

How to get around this? The NBA's Borgia contends that you can't put a price tag on good officiating, that because of innate dedication to law and order an official will be good wherever he is and whatever his fee. This would seem applicable in the professional leagues, where officials are paid well and move about freely. An American Football League summary for 1961 showed 380 fouls charged against home teams, 382 against visitors—a negligible difference for an entire season. AFL officials get $2,000 a season, extra for playoff games. The NFL pays a minimum of $1,500, but the figure spirals for older hands and there is $500 extra for the championship game. The National Basketball Association pays $50 to $100 a game and offers enough work (90 games or more) for some referees to realize $8,000 a season.

Colleges and schools, however, are subject to tighter budgets and must confine their officials geographically. The Big Ten pays well at $135 per football game, $100 per basketball game, plus travel allowances. But right next door the Ohio Conference does no better than some high schools: $25 per football game, $20 per basketball game. The collegiate scales elsewhere range between these. "Our biggest problem is money," says John Nucatola of the Eastern College Athletic Conference. When Eddie Wagner of the Big Five quit three years ago he said basketball officiating at any price was "blood money."

One solution that has been widely tried is to use officials who are already in a high-income bracket and to whom officiating is more or less a hobby. "A lot of us," says Alex George of the Big Eight, "are making more money than the coaches who jump us." The Big Ten roster includes an executive of Libbey-Owens-Ford, a sheriff, a mayor and a Chicago police captain. Two in the Southeastern Conference are state legislators. "The best official," says Whack Hyder of Georgia Tech, "is the man who works for the love of the game and not because of economic necessity." Not all coaches agree. Kentucky's Adolph Rupp objects to putting his career in the hands of a $75-a-night amateur. He advocates full-time officials.

But an onerous problem for any official is the blackball, which is given more respectable names by people who deny its existence: "grading," for instance, or "rating." It is, definitively, the method by which a coach can exclude an unwanted referee. The process is considered democratic in most sections of the country because it requires a majority vote to become effective. To stay on the "approved list" in the Big Ten, an official must have the vote of six members; in the Southwest Conference, five of eight. If a coach doesn't want a certain official, he marks him off—and when assignments are made he usually doesn't get him. The Southeastern Conference, which now uses the mark-off system, or "scratch," made an attempt a year or so ago to grade officials after each game. Winning coaches gave grades averaging 8.3 of a possible 10. Losers gave grades averaging 3.8. The conference threw out the results. "Coaches," said an official, "were just too prejudiced."

There is no blackball in the National Football League, which hires its-men after an investigation by an association of ex-FBI men and makes them responsible only to Supervisor Mike Wilson and League President Pete Rozelle. Coaches grade officials, but only "in hopes" that the league will take action against the bad ones, if any. Borgia requires that complaints against NBA officials "be only on integrity and hustle. You can't legislate against judgment."

Ironically, the turbulence over officiating comes at a time when efforts to cure its ills are being intensified. Clinics and instructional groups for officials have become popular. The NFL gives preseason tests and last fall for the first time flew its entire staff to Chicago for a clinic. John Bunn of Colorado State, editor of the national basketball rules committee, has made strides toward standardizing officiating. Big Eight football officials meet three hours before a game to discuss the probabilities of the day. The Big Ten has produced a clinical film, and two schools, Ohio State and Ohio University, invite officials to oversee their football practice sessions. As Coach Bill Hess of Ohio U. says, "The officials welcome the chance to improve their techniques. We get better in practice, not on game days. It's the same with officials." Hess's team led the nation in 1961 with the lowest number of penalties.

Other suggestions, none of which have prompted much action, are these:

Big Ten Commissioner Bill Reed would have officials serve a 10-year apprenticeship. Detroit Coach Jim Miller suggests a sixth official for football, one who could call downfield penalties from the press box. Tut Melman, Pittsburgh official, wants three officials for basketball, and Kansas State Coach Tex Winter would have them call games from isolation booths. Charley Eckman would like to see a corps of better-paid basketball referees, "traveling the country and increasing their consistency." He would also apply the three-second rule to defensive players to open up the middle, "where 90% of your fouls are committed and all the fights start."

Officials unanimously recommend a national gag rule for coaches, elimination of the blackball and the keeping of movie reviews on the amusement pages. No matter what is done, some action, most coaches and officials believe, is better than none. But it is unlikely a real solution will be reached until officials are granted as much power to discipline higher-paid coaches as $15,000-a-year baseball umpires have over $40,000-a-year managers.

PHOTOLOSS OF CONTROL in games is exemplified in this shouting match between a gesticulating coach, Lee Pfund, and a referee, Paul Sokody.