THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
This past MLB season saw something happen that not many people noticed:
The World Umpire Association (WUA), which is union that represents MLB umps, rebranded as the Major League Baseball Umpires Association (MLBUA), and became the fifth of the "big five" professional team sports to have a major online presence through websites and social media.
MLB umpires join officials from the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLS as becoming more transparent to the public. Granted, the public will probably go the way of abusing this privilege (see the #RefWatchParty that occurred during the NBA Finals), but the intent to keep the conversation open and ongoing is a fantastic thing.
The union has actually been very active on Twitter (@MLBUA), showcasing good calls by umpires in an attempt to educate the general public on how they work. Possibly the best part of this work, however, is even more highlights for the UMPS CARE charity.
Officials in these major sports take unfortunate abuse from the uneducated public. Players, coaches, and the media have a tendency to speak and act in ways that do not represent the educated point of view of the official. These actions speak to a psychological issue of scapegoating, leaving the officials as the common enemy among rivals.
The officials are tired of being treated as sub-humans. These platforms will allow their voices to be heard. The public would be smart to recognize this and know they are proud to uphold the integrity of the game and do their job.
As we look back at the basketball season, there is actually something that stands out to me that may not stand out to the majority of other people. There has been a significant rise in technical fouls, resulting in a less-than-stellar relationship between referees and team personnel.
If you're not familiar with how the technical foul system works in basketball, take the time to look it up before continuing. And even if you are, take the time to review how it differs from league to league, especially in terms of fines and suspensions.
I mention that last part because of the evidence that will really make you scratch your head: Draymond Green actually budgets money for his technical fouls.
You read that right: while wearing the uniform of the Golden State Warriors, a team that is highly touted as arguably the best in the west during this time period, Green has no regard for the shame of the punishment. He keeps cash aside to pay for the fines so that he can act outlandish.
That's the equivalent of saving money for speeding tickets just so that you can watch cops get out of the car in the rain for your enjoyment.
The NBA has a technical foul problem. Thankfully, the league has begun to attempt to fix this, unveiling a program that was implemented in February of this year to better educate all parties on the subjects and create a better understanding between all involved in the hopes of creating empathy that will reduce the amount of technical fouls assessed. The goal is not to remove the emotion from the game, but rather to prevent an escalation of behavior into inappropriate actions that would be wrong in any walk of life.
Look at it this way. In scholastic athletics, officials sometimes use this mantra in explaining to coaches/adults (who are usually also teachers in some way) why they can't act a certain way: if you wouldn't do it in the classroom, what makes you think you can do it here? Think about that. If a teacher wouldn't allow a student to behave inappropriately during class, why should that teacher think he/she can then act out on the playing field when school is over and he/she is now coaching a team?
To bring it full circle, when professional athletes realize that they are equal parts entertainer and athlete, maybe it will sink in a bit more. Fans don't come to watch you argue or get ejected. You get to play a game for a living...a real lucrative living. So grow up and play the game the right way.
This season, former MLB outfielder Gary Sheffield contributed to a piece for The Player's Tribune under the guise of being Commissioner of MLB for a day. Some of his ideas were legit (the Wild Card playoff should be a series), while others were contentious (the DH should be in the National League). However, a few were down right stupid.
Sheffield's first point of ridiculousness surrounds the idea of throwing at batters. He believes that hitters should be allowed to charge the mound and retaliate against pitchers who purposely throw at hitters.
I'm going to stop and let that sink in for a second...
I really don't have to continue writing to prove how lost Sheffield is, but for the sake of the piece, let's keep going.
Second point: the sliding rules (bona fide slide and catchers blocking the plate) have made us soft. Sheffield actually endorses the idea of hurting a guy to break up a double play. He equates it to contesting a jump shot in basketball.
I'm no basketball genius, but I'm pretty sure trying to block a jump shot doesn't involve a high speed collision where someone could end up with a broken leg.
What else does he say that will make you bleed from your ears? Instant replay is ridiculous. The infield shifts should be banned (he actually called the sport "computer-geek ball"). And the best part? MLB is not strict enough in suspensions for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.
Wait a minute, Gary. Aren't you a cheater? Didn't you get caught using steroids?
Daniel Webster College is shutting down its Division III men's basketball program. However, the final game for the team was marred by a brawl that resulted in three arrests.
Marquise Caudill, a guard for Daniel Webster's team, was arrested after assaulting an opponent by punching him and stomping on him while he was on the ground. He further threatened an officer working security detail who tried to stop him.
His teammate, Antwaun Boyd, was also arrested for inciting the crowd that surrounded the officer who was trying to stop the fight.
A spectator, 43-year-old Elizabeth Morris, was also arrested for attempting to hold back the same officer from making the arrest.
Apparently, the officer in question requested backup and received the help of 25 other officers to attempt to restore order.
Sometimes, there are just no words for these types of situations. You just shake your head and ask, "What were these people thinking?" Or perhaps they weren't...
Although basketball season may not be on the forefront of everyone's mind right now, let's take a minute to examine a topic that started to gain some legs in January of this year regarding Maverick's owner Mark Cuban.
The National Basketball Referees Association (NBRA) has alleged via legal counsel that Cuban is influencing referees during games with threats. Based on Cuban's history of receiving fines from the league for his behavior towards referees, Cuban's response denying such acts holds little to no water.
This brings up further issues with officiating basketball, namely the topic of anyone who might be able to "work" a referee, converse to the fact that basketball officials give off the appearance of inconsistency based on how easy it can be to miss some calls.
Basketball is at a severe disadvantage compared to the other major sports (baseball, football, hockey) due to the fact that the officials are in close proximity to the fans (or any non-game/team personnel). In the other sports, the playing fields are set in such a way that fans have little to no influence over the way an official calls a game; baseball sets its fans significantly far back from where the umpires are positioned, while football has a large ring of space for the entire team and its corresponding personnel that buffers the on-field officials from being even remotely close to a spectator. Hockey, which frequently shares an arena with basketball in each city, is set up very much like basketball, but the addition of the plexiglass border (not to mention the constant skating) practically eliminates any contact with fans.
In essence, it's just unfair that anyone, including a team owner, can sit so close to the court and be in earshot of a referee. Sure, it may be nice to sit court side and feel like you're part of the action, but that doesn't give an advantage to anyone, especially the officials. So why does anyone, spectator or owner, get the right to talk to an official in such a derogatory way?
The fact of the matter is that nobody gets that right. It wouldn't be very economical or practical to try to change the setup at this juncture to prevent this from happening, but maybe something has to be done to restrict this poor behavior.
Digging deeper, we come to the idea that coaches infamously "work" referees to get calls for their team. In fact, Cuban's response to the accusation that he threatens officials includes a clause that states that any official who changes his calls based on what he hears from team personnel or fans does not deserve to work in the NBA.
Okay, just back up one second...
Let's start with the philosophical reality of what officials should be doing. They should be calling the game as they see it. No one person should influence or change how an official calls his/her game. However, coaches and players have been yelling at officials for eons (much to my dismay), so how is it that basketball officials come off as some of the most influential officials in sports? In no other sport does a head coach get to talk to an official while the game is going on, forcing multi-tasking that is really impossible.
Practically, however, we can summarize this whole ordeal very simply. Officials in every sport are human. If they reach the professional level, they are probably at the very top of their game, but that doesn't give 100% assurance that they will get every call right. There's a right way and a wrong way to talk to officials, and if your attitude towards officials includes dismay, saying inappropriate things involving threats is the first thing that should not come to your mind.
The best coaches I've encountered as an umpire contain many similar and unique factors, and one of them is the knowledge of the proper way to talk to officials: with respect, class, and dignity, but knowing what you're entitled to know, ask, and discuss. Disagreements happen, but they shouldn't involve the owner of the team threatening to have an official thrown out of the league.
Let's start with a disclaimer: in New Jersey, it is forbidden to discuss matters relating to officiating high school sports on social media or any other type of Internet medium. These issues specifically reference coaches, players, and really anything else that could come back to bite the official or the state. Ergo, I can post something to social media asking my fellow umpire colleagues about recommendations for liability insurance for umpires, or about the proper mechanic for a certain play, but I can't vent about how the varsity coach of a school is a mean guy.
That being said, a basketball official in Iowa has done this. Now, he hasn't specifically named names or anything; he's in the gray zone where I wouldn't want to find myself on this issue. And an article in the Des Moines Register has picked up on these little snippets and hailed them as worthy of being viral due to their truth.
The article was written by Aaron Young on January 24, 2017, about Rich Ripley. Ripley has recorded his thoughts from officiating over the past five years, which may explain one of the reasons why it hasn't occurred to him that this isn't a great idea. A five year official may not have the frame of mind to think about how this could be detrimental. Alternatively, the state of Iowa may just not have caught up.
With all this on the table, the thoughts from Ripley are spot on. And the truth that comes from these quotes hit home for officials. Here are the examples shared in the article (edited for grammar, of course):
We find ourselves preaching the same thing over and over again: the officials of any sport are human. The best officials are working the professional leagues; as you go down in level and rank, the officiating follows it. (That's not to say there aren't any good officials for high school contests; the probability of human error just may increase.) These types of thoughts go through the minds of every official at all different points of their season. They are the common problems we all face in the fraternal order of officials.
In addition to everything the officials feel and think, keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of officials do support the kids/players and their volunteer coaches. They want everybody to have a good time. The hard work that everybody puts in does not go unnoticed.
In fact, if there's one thing to take from all this, it should be this: the best coaches and players are not necessarily the ones who garner the most victories, but rather who notice, understand, and accept the fact that the officials put in just as much (if not more) time, effort, and hard work as they do.
While sitting at one of my favorite pizza places having a sandwich (which is ironic in itself), I was watching a soccer game on the television that was mounted in the corner of the restaurant. My friends behind the counter were invested in this game taking place in Europe, which is no surprise since soccer (or football, as it is more popularly known throughout the rest of the world) is one of the most universal games we have.
I noticed something interesting, though. The crowd at this game was singing in unison while the match was going on...and they didn't stop. It reminded me of a college football game, where sections of underage drunk students would constantly be making obnoxious noise in their attempt to will their team to victory. Thus, it also reminded me of the traditions we hold in American football (the NFL), such as the deafening crowd noise that arises when the visiting team is on offense, in an attempt to influence the outcome of the game by not allowing the offensive players to communicate.
As a steward of the game of baseball, I always viewed this as unsportsmanlike. No matter my role with the game of baseball (be it player, coach, or fan...because umpire is slightly different in this context), my enjoyment of the game came from watching it unfold and participating in the role I had. If I was a player, I was never the cheerleading leader of my team; I focused on what my job was depending on where the ball was hit, or what I needed to do during my turn at-bat. If I was a coach or manager, I was thinking strategy and when it was time to remove my pitcher for a fresh arm. If I was a fan, I was trying to see if my thought process was aligned with the players and coaches of teams I was watching (and obviously rooting for the Yankees). I was never trying to be the loud and obnoxious fan that was attempting to influence the game.
In fairness, however, baseball in America does have one accepted custom that has found unanimously in stadiums. When the home pitcher gets two strikes on the opposing batter, usually the fans will stand and cheer to encourage the strikeout. This was started by Yankees fans during the dominance of Ron Guidry and his record number of strikeouts. And I will admit that I find myself falling in place with this custom, usually when there are two strikes and two outs in the ninth inning and we're one pitch away from winning the game.
This and the singing at a soccer match got me thinking about the different customs at sporting events throughout the world, and it led to a broad examination as to what is culturally accepted as well as a debate as to whether the cultural acceptance is actually a morally good thing.
If we stick with baseball, most of the cheering (or other fan reactions) will occur when a play is not occurring or a pitch is not being made. Fans cheer after a player gets a hit or after a pitcher records a strikeout. The cheering that occurs when a batter has two strikes on him doesn't have the exact same effect as the equivalent might in another sport because it is still up to the pitcher to execute that final pitch. Fans can cheer all the want, but if the pitcher grooves a fastball, a big league hitter will still turn on it and drive it 400 feet. Further, keep in mind that baseball is a game of failure. The best hitters in history failed seven out of every ten times at the plate. So when a batter has two strikes on him, the probability of him failing is already incredibly high; the cheering of the crowd "against" him really doesn't push the needle one way or the other.
Ironically, if we examine baseball in other cultures, we will find behavior that might seem unsportsmanlike, but is really traditional to the native land. For example, in Japan, each hitter has his own march that is played/chanted by fans during his turn at bat. This actually will include the use of trumpets and other instruments that might otherwise be seen as distracting. Yet, this is merely to encourage the home team's hitters, especially when the odds are against them (as they are against every hitter). So long as each march is played in accordance with the traditional rules of encouraging a hitter, it seems like this is also acceptable and not immoral in the grand scheme of fandom. (Latin American cultures have very similar practices, as well.)
While we're on the subject of foreign sports, let's go back to soccer (or football) as it relates to the rest of the world. The fans at these events participate in same type of behavior: any sort of singing, chanting, or performing is not done in an attempt to influence the outcome of the game, but rather to encourage the home team. It also creates a sense of unity among fans, which is greatly valued in non-American cultures among sports fans. So the constant annoying sound of the vuvuzela that is heard at a Spanish soccer game is welcome, no matter how much it makes you want to rip your ears off.
Similarly, soccer (or football...I feel like I have to keep saying it) is such an aerobic sport that the play never stops, even when the ball goes out of bounds. Players are so focused that the sound of the crowd rarely affects them, much the same as in baseball. What's very interesting is that both of these sports have such international appeal while also having such intrinsic beauty to the way they are played that it's no wonder their popularity continues to maintain a strong presence in the international community. These two sports are so different, yet they have more in common than you might think.
Speaking of aerobic sports, let's consider basketball and hockey. One of the biggest differences between these two sports and a sport such as baseball is the use of the PA system during play. In baseball, sound effects, music, and other similar things occur when action is not happening, such as in between pitches or in between innings. In basketball and hockey, sometimes the use of the arena's organ occurs while play is live. A basketball player may inbound the ball, and the organist might play something small and simple while the ball is being brought up the court. Gil Imber, the organist for the Anaheim Ducks, might play something while the puck is being secured in the Ducks' defensive zone and about ready to be brought out to mid-ice. So long as the PA system is not specifically being used to distract the players, there's no fault in using it to create atmosphere.
Fans at these events usually don't try to influence a game with the exception of the distraction of a player during free throws in basketball. It has become commonplace for the fans sitting directly behind the basket to attempt to distract an opposing player from making the foul shots he/she gets after being fouled. This is one of customs in fandom that doesn't serve a purpose because it may actually have an effect on the game. A basketball player's ability to shoot free throws should be determined by his athletic skill level, not on the ability of fans to distract him/her. We finally have our first example of poor sportsmanship in our discussion!
Let's consider sports such as tennis or golf. These are sports where silence is required while players play. It is curious to wonder if this is due to the high level of skill required to play either sport, or if this was some sort of "gentleman's agreement" that has been passed down through the ages. Perhaps it is a combination of both, but it begs the interesting question of whether other sports might benefit from this in certain fashions.
Although we could examine plenty of sports, let's end with the re-examination of American football. Fans clearly believe their crowd noise influences the outcome of a game. Players believe it too. In fact, teams have been known to give themselves strategic advantages (both legal and illegal) regarding noise in order to gain a home-field advantage. Some teams have illegally used fake crowd noise over the PA system to make it even more difficult for the opponents to communicate. The Minnesota Vikings have made it known that their new stadium is built in such a way that the acoustics of the building take the sound and reflect it directly into the opponent's sideline, as if a wave of sound was massively dumped on them. Why is this so important?
What's really funny about this is that football is very much like basketball and hockey in that the better teams usually find ways to "muscle" their way to victory. The execution of team skill doesn't always play out the same way, as opposed to a sport like baseball. (And that's not to mention that baseball is the only sport without a clock...you can't "take a knee" in baseball to run out the clock like you can in football: you have to get all 27 outs.) Yet, even though the better teams usually win in football, teams and fans alike feel drawn to using outside factors such as crowd noise to influence the outcome of the game.
This phenomenon has one good conclusion and one bad conclusion.
The good conclusion is that these practices bring fans together and unite them with the team. The nature of fandom is to feel like you, the fan, are part of the team and share equally in every experience. The psychological idea of being associated with the winner is what sports marketing and management uses to create campaigns that increase revenue left and right. Yet, fans eat it up because it gives them a larger cause or movement that unites them. American football is almost as powerful as any religion in the nation as such, which is ironic since it's played on Sunday.
The bad conclusion (and I would argue more important) is that the desire to influence the game as such by fans and with the endorsement of the franchise shows a severe character flaw in the psyche of the team as a whole. It's as if the team is not confident enough in its ability to out-perform the opponent, so they must use any means necessary to achieve victory. Perhaps fans get a pass on this since they don't know any better; it's so easy to be drawn in by the association with your team and your fandom that considering this psychological issue is not even on the radar of most astute fans. But when players encourage fans to support them, or, more importantly, when teams (especially the front office or any of the off-field personnel) encourage this type of behavior with the acoustic design of a stadium or the graphics that get shown on video boards encouraging fans to become boisterous, it makes this writer step back and ask that age old question that has yet to be answered: "Why?"
As a post script note, I ask this follow-up question. Is this the first catalyst into the stereotype of football players being below average when it comes to intelligence? Does this feed into societal norm that only people who aren't smart can play football? The range of questions that can rise from this is infinite, and the proverbial rabbit hole is so deep that it may never end.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.