Shi: Blame the ref – even when you’re down by 40

May 5, 2016, 12:26 a.m.

I did not go to the most athletically distinguished high school. In fact, I went to a school that was better at blaming refs than winning games. The problem is that sometimes, I can think of actual-factual professional athletes who would have fit in with us just fine.

It’s not that we outright sucked. We had some very good programs – mostly preppy sports like squash, crew and tennis, and also cross country for some reason – but we were still not in the business of contending for regional titles. We recruited, but not very actively. Our players put in time at the gym, but they didn’t live in it. It should be no surprise that our athletic conference divided football and boys’ hockey into two separate groups: the teams with studs, and the teams that would be lucky to field a couple of Division III recruits.

By some absurd stroke of luck, we once landed a Division I hockey player. Mike made the game seem like the easiest thing in the world, which it was, considering he was playing against teams that were, well, like us. He glided around the rink like nobody else was there, and being the 150-pound ball of rage that he was, he hit people pretty hard too. He was perfect. But then we’d turn around and lose to Dexter out of conference by 10 goals.

Given our generally undistinguished athletic prowess, then, we were mostly notable for two things: polite players and horribly obnoxious fans. Guess which one I was.

So let’s talk about the refs.


We were not Duke basketball. Our conference was very strict about the rules, so for the most part we were quiet. But out of conference, we’d really get annoying. We’d chant “safety school” at our opponents, we’d get loud in creative ways (before you interject that this is par for the course, these are otherwise highly straitlaced and preppy religious schools we are talking about) and because it’s rather difficult to complain about opposing players when your rival has three four- or five-star basketball recruits in the starting lineup, we’d complain to the refs.

Yes. Because when you’re losing by 40 to Kaleb Tarczewski (whose name, by the way, I can spell on the first try because of things like this) after Coach Lubick had the courtesy to spot you 20 points, it must be the refs’ fault.

I kind of feel bad about this.

The truth is that refereeing sucks, and I have trouble imagining why anybody would want to do it. The pay is bad. Nobody praises you. In fact, everybody agrees that you are terrible and the single worst thing to happen to the game. Few, if any, positions have such a wide gap between actual power and imagined prestige. You may, if you so choose, allow a few no-calls against a particularly obnoxious home team, tilt the game in favor of the opponents, even stop the game if that’s your cup of tea. You are the closest thing to a deity that exists on the court. To the fans, you are Stalin and Hitler. In fact, you are worse than Stalin and Hitler, because to the fans’ knowledge, Stalin and Hitler never “handed” the Los Angeles Lakers the 2002 Western Conference Finals.

Bizarrely, only the very worst screw-ups give the fans enough perspective to see through this charade. Stalin and Hitler never cost Armando Gallaraga a perfect game – Jim Joyce did – but Joyce’s reputation might actually have increased after his epic botchjob, because every player in the majors immediately started talking nonstop about how great of an umpire Jim Joyce was. Forget to give a team a routine makeup call (or give a team a makeup call, depending on who you’re cheering for), though? You might as well be dirt.

And most of the time, we do, in fact, treat the refs like dirt. In a close game, consider all of the small things that could swing the matchup – all of the bang-bang action, all of the judgment calls, all of the conflicting stimuli, all of the whackjobs getting in your face (and in this I include myself) – it’s unrealistic to expect perfection from a ref. But what fan ever cared about being realistic?

Booing the refs, then, is an act of hope – albeit a cruel and generally fruitless one. This is the standard explanation: The ref cost my favorite team the game, and therefore he/she must be booed forever.


Given how one call can turn a close game, everything is fair game for the Monday morning quarterback. What’s amazing about NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is that after Game 2 of this year’s Spurs-Thunder playoff series, he copped to five missed fouls in 14 seconds. And after this rather shocking admission, SB Nation started listing even more missed fouls that Silver’s film crew hadn’t spotted.

Why do we boo the ref when we’re down by 40, though?

I don’t have a great answer for this, mainly because it’s so stupid. But maybe the stupidity is the reason: Frankly, it’s so stupid it’s actually campy. The ref is part of the entertainment, same as everybody else. If booing the ref made sense, we’d care enough to look up who the ref actually was. We’d identify people biased against our teams, we’d draw up conspiracy theories, we’d make sure they got a warm welcome when they came to the wrong games, we’d make their lives hell. If there was a ref who was consistently biased (sorry, I meant “fair”) towards our team, we’d stay quiet if that ref missed a call. Of course, in reality we do invent conspiracy theories (Tim Duncan and the people of San Antonio v. Joey Crawford). But we’d attack the “fair” ref too.

The problem is that being entertainment generally pays well. Heels like Bill Laimbeer or Corey Perry are paid well. Their thick skins are built from millions of dollar bills. Most refs barely get paid at all.


Winston Shi says that the New England prep school athletic scene was split between polite players and horribly obnoxious fans, and asked you, the reader, to guess which he was. Ask him about the time he quoted Shakespeare to an opposing defensive lineman while blocking him at wshi94 ‘at’

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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