Maybe We Should Talk

Why can't players and officials just get along?
November 08, 2010

On Dec. 3 a group of major league players is reportedly scheduled to sit across from a group of major league umpires in a rare "summit" meeting called by the players' union and, with requisite tact (one hopes), tell them, "We think you could be doing a better job." The umps might counter with, "You hang your slider in late innings," or, "I've noticed you consistently fail to advance the runner," particularly if Joe West is at the table. But they would be wise to do something else: Listen to the players.

The state of umpiring has never been worse. Technology is a factor, of course, since any octogenarian grandmother with glaucoma can plant her face three inches from her 56-inch plasma and scream, "Strike? Pitch Trax had that a mile outside!" As of Monday we were still awaiting the first umpiring disaster of the World Series, but this postseason, like the one of 2009, has been rife with questionable calls. And that's without even bringing up Jim Joyce's whopper of a miss at first base that cost the Tigers' Armando Galarraga a perfect game during the season. (O.K., I just brought it up.)

Just as bad, respect for the umps is also at a new low. The men in blue have exacerbated their mistakes with quick hooks, surly exchanges with players and managers and an unwillingness to own up to mistakes, Joyce's genuine contrition aside. Perceived incompetence and actual intransigence is a bad combination. We suggest that the umps repress their first impulse, which is to go to the you're-outta-here gesture, and accept a meeting as a fait accompli—and a valuable opportunity.

They should at least take solace in the fact that their bestriped brethren in other sports are also getting an earful. NFL players are upset and confused about a new mandate that officials will take harsher action against helmet-to-helmet blows and other illegal hits. In the NBA, meanwhile, players are broiling over a crackdown on arguing with officials that resulted in a surge of technical fouls (and thus in fines) during the preseason and that has already been a factor in the first week of league play.

Throw in a combustible mix of other issues—the harrowing concussion rate in the NFL that no doubt led to the new emphasis on reducing hard hits and the likelihood of a labor stoppage in the NBA after this season—and it's clear that a storm front has settled in. It's time for some meaningful dialogue to clear up the meteorological picture, and why not involve the players?

True, it's ingrained in the culture of sport that rules of play are debated, modified and changed by committees that don't include players. They might have official representation in the form of union reps, but that's not the same thing as players testifying in person. The idea of players and officials discussing the one thing that unites them—the way the game is played—seems logical, and overdue, and it's fitting that baseball, our oldest national game, take the leadoff spot.

But let's keep booking those conference rooms. The NFL's contact rules are causing enough consternation to warrant a meeting, and what fan of great theater wouldn't love to see outspoken Steelers linebacker James Harrison—the king of consternation, a man who at first threatened retirement when he was fined under the new guidelines—in attendance? "We can still play the game, but it's not the same," Harrison said on Inside the NFL after the Steelers beat the Miami Dolphins 23--22 on Oct. 24. Harrison's point was that on a few occasions he backed off rather than initiate contact that could've drawn a suspension. Now, reasonable people can argue whether that's a good thing (the league's point) or whether it turned Harrison into a clawless pussycat (the player's point). And they should hash it out. Face-to-face.

It's too early to say whether the NBA's T Party will continue into the regular season. But Celtics center Shaquille O'Neal was tagged for excessive arguing in the fourth quarter of Boston's 95--87 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 27. On the same night, three techs were whistled against Portland and one against the Clippers in the Trail Blazers' 98--88 win. The Los Angeles Lakers' Lamar Odom has suggested, presumably with tongue in cheek, that the league slogan, Where Amazing Happens, be replaced by, Where Normal Happens. Let's give Odom a seat at the table too.

The NBA Players Association says that it plans legal action against the NBA because players weren't consulted before the league instituted the new rules, which executive director Billy Hunter labeled "an unnecessary and unwarranted overreaction." O.K., that's what unions do.

But it's time for talk, not tort. It's not common labor practice for workers to sit across the table from bosses, but one can argue that sports are different, if only because such an organic connection exists between the officials and those whose fate they control. Every minute of an athlete's professional life is dictated by the call, or noncall, of an official. Perhaps if players have a voice at the table, they won't act out so stridently on the field of play.

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Players and officials discussing the thing that unites them—THE WAY THE GAME IS PLAYED—is overdue.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY DARROW

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)