Friday, May 7, 2010

The Angry Ref - "Do you know what this game means?”

I get asked this a lot.
“Do you know how important this game is?"

“Do you know what’s a stake today?”

“You know this is a big game right?”

Wrong.  I don’t know.  And the fact is, I don’t want to know.  Besides, what’s the implication behind this question?  Are you suggesting that if the game meant “nothing” I’d approach it different.  Are you suggesting that my focus and preparation are different if the game isn’t a big deal?  Are you insinuating that I don’t give my best effort every time out?  Because if so, that’s a little insulting.
Let me tell you a little story.  I was off somewhere out of my union with a group of referees most of whom were far more advanced than I was at the time.  They were trading ref stories and one, and I forget the context of the remark, essentially stated that when he was coming up long ago it had been a waste of his time to ref the D3 notional playoffs.  He just couldn’t muster the excitement.  He talked about the challenges of getting up to do such a mundane game.  Clearly D3 was below him.  Now, as much as I disagree with his attitude he did make an important point, one that has stuck with me throughout my career.  It was this:
“I knew I had to get up for it because even though I wasn’t excited it was everything to these players.  For many them this was the pinnacle of their rugby lives and that had to be respected.”
When I was playing I was never on a team that made the playoffs.  I never even played in a game with playoff implications.  Never.  But as a player every game was important to me.  As a ref there are a couple things I carry with me each week.  The first is that every game is important to the players.  The second is that every game is important in and of itself.  You cannot allow a game at the end of the season to be any more or less important than a game at the beginning of the season.  Even if the last game determines whether or not a team makes the playoffs, or what their seeding will be.  Because the fact is that the way the games go from the start of the year determine what situation the team is in at the end of the year.  If you sleepwalk through an early season match you could have a hand in setting up the “winner take all” scenario at the end of the year.  If you’re concentration and preparation aren’t there for the games you deem as “unimportant” you could ruin a team’s year later on down the road.
So I don’t care what any one game means.  I don’t care what the implications of any one game are.  They are all important.  Nothing changes for me in terms of how I call the game.  I call what I see.  I interpret the law as I interpret it and I don’t care who you are, or who your coach is, or where you played before or any of that.  Once the game starts you’re a player and I’m the ref and the play is the play.  Because as much as we ref a game overall, and think about the game as a whole entity a large part of what we do is adjudicate moments.  Each breakdown, each set piece, each attempted tackle is its own entity seen and judged in real time.  Whatever happens in those moments happens and as a player I’m not sure you want the ref thinking about what it could mean in the larger context of this match or season.  I think you want the ref focused on this play, this moment happening right now.  Right?
To answer that I present this quote from Bruce Weber’s book “As They See ‘Em” about baseball umpires.
“Put another way, umpires are the only ones in the park for whom the narrative powers of a ball game are supposed to be irrelevant.  For fans, for players, for broadcasters, for everyone else the appeal of a ball game is that it is a story, with characters, a measure of uncertainty and suspense, a beginning, a middle, an end, and in the best of circumstances a climax and a denouement.  But for umpires, the story can be nothing but a distraction.  For them the game needs to be a procession of episodes, each only as weighty as the previous one, and it’s imperative for them to combat the very human impulse to be drawn into the drama.”
That is why I don’t want to know what this game means.  Because for me it can’t mean anything more than any other game.  An even keel is what defines a good ref.  The first play is the same as the last play.  The first game is the same as the playoff game.  It is not the meaning of the game that matters to us, it is the judgment of the moment.  For us, the game is nothing more than a series of moments strung together.


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