The whistle blows and protests erupt, cases are spontaneously pleaded. The buzzer sounds and the athlete, the coach, the crowd let out a disappointed sigh. It was obvious to everyone, wasn’t it? But the call didn’t land in your favour. The point, the decisive event, the match – someone else took it. They leave feeling worse than they came, a sour taste in their mouths.
Occasionally, a contest will be won or lost based on a seemingly controversial decision. Just as athletes challenge the limits of what they are capable of doing within the rules, the decisions to be made about when and how those limits are overridden are similarly challenging. We have authorized people – the officials – to make those decisions, since we ourselves can’t be watching all the angles when we’re so focused on our own efforts. This means they are authorized to nullify a seemingly flawless perforance, or turn an apparent failure into success, if the rules call for that.
Officials aren’t always athletes, although many of them are (or were). They are, however, experts at knowing what athletes should do, what they tend to do, and the difference between the two. For this reason, they have a unique view into our Society. They understand us, even if they aren’t engaged in challenging us they way we challenge each other. We can call them special guests in our Society. They might not consider all of our ground values (and postulates) in the way we do, but they likely have studied and rationalized a few of them more than most.
We invited the guests over
Officials are mandated to make their calls on the field of play from a neutral position, and should favor nothing but the fair outcome of the game. We either truly need officials for sport to be fair, and thus truly want them to be there, or we don’t and can manage things on our own or through other methods. The latter happens all the time in pick-up games, local races, and similar contests. Athletes (hopefully) know the rules quite well, after all.
That is why postulate 2 exists, which states that the rules of the contest reflect its ideals, and vice versa. At some point in the development of our sport, we collectively realized that certain rules were needed, and also put a rule in there about someone (other than the athletes) being needed to enforce them. In fact, in some sports there are so many rules regarding officials and their roles, that we likely knew how chaotic and invalid the outcome would be if we didn’t have them there. And those are not the ideals that we wanted to define our sport.
Similarly, Postulate 3 reminds us that the outcome of the contest is valid only when decided on an even playing field. Officials are presumably placed on the field to ensure just that. They measure, adjust, recall, and require as needed to keep things on the level. In some sports, when we strongly disagree with officials’ calls, there are courses of redress, juries and the like which allow protests to be made after the fact. Even so, the official is rarely faulted, and the results most often remain unchanged. This is because calls made on the field of play are considered sacred, decided by a trained, impartial*, and trusted person – the official – that is there solely to ensure sport happens fairly. If we start questioning these noble intentions, it’s easy to see the model quickly falling apart shortly afterwards. There might be other, better models, but we obviously haven’t found them.
To err is human, and nobody here is an god
Officials are, like ourselves, human of course and it happens that they make mistakes on the field of play, but by all measures less often than athletes do. (If both parties had whistles to let the other know when they were not doing something correctly, then it would be a very lopsided soundscape.) What is most important to everyone is knowing that you gave your all out there. And in particular, that your challengers know this.
This still might not make us feel better. In some cases, a clear mistake was made, and it wasn’t us that made it. So what should we do the next time that happens? Here’s a concrete suggestion:
- If the call is clearly incorrect and falls in your opponents’ favor, talk to your opponents afterwards. Let them know that you accept the outcome (or that you will challenge it via an accepted process), and that you regret any mistakes made by the official that may cast doubt on your opponents’ honourable intentions (or abilities). Tell them you look forward to the next match against them.
- If the call is clearly incorrect and falls in your favor, put your hand up, point out the error to the official and your opponents, and ask for it to be withdrawn or overturned. If the official is 100 % certain that they are correct, and that you are mistaken, then you will have tried to ensure the outcome was made on fair terms. Nothing more can be asked.
There is, however, a worrying presence in some sports and situations where this impartiality can be reasonably doubted. In these cases, we are no longer dealing with officials, or even sport – since such matches can thereby assumed to be “fixed”, and are therefore something else than sport. These people are involved in theft, fraud, and/or nepotism. We must disqualify these people from our Society, and quickly. They bring dishonour to the field of play, and must have nothing to do with it, ever.