Referees & Fairness

I don’t know what this football season is going to look like. But I’ve seen hundreds of memes about how bad 2020 is turning out to be. It makes me think that the universe owes us some payback in 2021. Which got me to thinking about what happens when referees make bad calls on the field. There is always an expectation of fairness that at some point they will make an offsetting call for the other team to even things out.

It’s not always exactly equal. A missed PI call on a 45 yard passing play that would have been a touchdown, cannot be balanced by a an overly generous encroachment call on 1st and 10. A player that takes a dive inside the 18 drawing a PK, can’t be offset by a generous yellow card on an open field tackle. Missing the catcher tag the runner as he slides into home, can’t be offset by a larger strike zone the following inning.

We have come to expect fairness. Balance. We know that people make mistakes. You can’t fix something that happened; History can’t be rewritten. But we have come to expect that there will be inevitable balance. That’s what we want in sports. A level playing field that gives every team the opportunity to succeed. If something tilts the balance, we expect it to tilt the opposite way with equivalence.

And so I turn to the recent public discourse about Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, Systemic Racism, the relative inequities in society for people who happen to have skin with a little more color than me. Just before George Floyd’s murder, I started listening to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas. I figured if the President didn’t know who he was, I needed to educate myself. I remember listening to the first chapter and the description of a whipping of a woman. “The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped. And where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream and whip her to make her hush.” I listened to that section and a lot more description about this person’s inhumane treatment of humans. I remember exactly where I was on my run when this part came up. I had to stop the Audible player. I stopped running. I choked up and my heart beat faster than it should for running that pace.

I couldn’t come back to the book for a few weeks. But after George Floyd’s death, I knew that I had to subject myself to the reality of what this country I love, had done and continues to do to its citizens.

I imagine what it must have been like to be a New Orleans Saints fan on Jan 20, 2019. A blown call that seems to have no recourse. Even the defender admitted he did it to save a touchdown in the final two minutes of the game. How could the refs equal that out? It’s a game, not even real life, and we don’t have an answer.

But I can’t possibly imagine what it is like to be Black in America. Racism is still real. I don’t agree with the idea of direct reparations payments because it would seem to only balance the scale for descendants of slaves and not the vast majority of people today that are subject to racism and an unfair playing field because of the color of their skin. I do agree with programs that specifically tilt the scales back in the favor of Blacks who are unfairly burdened with playing the game of life with the debt of 200 years of slavery and continued systemic racism. Low income housing grants, a few years of Affirmative Action and other relatively small programs, don’t seem to even come close to balancing that equation. We need more of them.

In the last minute of the Saints game or even overtime, if the refs tried to offset the missed call by penalizing the Rams, there is almost no scenario that could make the team or fans feel compensated. Let’s say they tried. After Brees is hit and throws the pick, a late flag for something like illegal hands to the face on a D-Lineman is intended to make up for the missed call, giving the Saints the ball back. How would that individual lineman feel for a blown call against him? That moment is not fair. Would it feel fair for the Rams in the totality of the game? Does that call balance the missed PI?

These things never exactly equate. For Black America, this country has made efforts since the 60’s to offset hundreds of years of inequity. But we’re not even close. And sure, at an individual level, some white person might feel that extra funding for an inner city mostly black school or neighborhood might seem a little unfair. But stop for a second and try to envision that program in the larger arc of history. Can you still make that argument? Does it feel ‘right’?

I love sports metaphors and applying them to life. Those of us who enjoy sports know how critical it is to have a level playing field, rules and fairness. We should expect no less in life. We should expect no less from businesses, schools and government. Yes, I think rewarding someone with lesser skills goes against the fabric of competition and basic economic theory that I hold dear. But I will advocate strongly for increased and enhanced education, community programs and spending, small business financing and access to capital to build the skills and economic stature of Black America to get to the point where there never has to be a question about fairness at an individual level.

I don’t like the idea of penalizing players on the field to try to create balance. Nothing is solved in the moment. The solution always works better when it is systemic rather than anecdotal. Like better instant replay. Or in this case, creating systems that enhance a ‘team’s’ ability to play within the rules. Does that seem fair to a team not getting that same benefit right now? Yes. The TEAM is more than the players on the field right now. It takes with it the history of the franchise and all the years of competition by players who came before them. We take that legacy with us. Own it, own up to it. Make it a better legacy for the franchise.

Go Team.

About Josh Rutstein

I am an aspiring entrepreneur and hopeful political candidate. Father of 2 very special girls, husband to an amazing woman, and passionate American. I snowboard whenever possible and follow a 20x mentality for exercise. I also play golf and ultimate frisbee and am a die hard New England Patriots fan and season ticket holder. Everyday I wake up wanting to make this country a better place, someday I hope to actually succeed.
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