One of the hoarier adages about umpires, referees, and officials is that — like middle managers, household appliances, and noisy children — they are behaving at their best when you do not notice them at all. If you watch an entire sporting event and never once think about who was officiating, that official did a good job. The only time an official comes to your attention is when they make a mistake or put themselves at the center of the action … both of which get in the way of the actual sport you’re trying to watch.
They’re invisible, or they’re in the wrong.
There was a time in American history where this sort of stoic, selfless solitude in anonymity was valued, even revered, an impartial observer standing solely for justice, charity, and fair play, Gary Cooper in vertical stripes. That day has long passed. Today, like their colleagues in the Fourth Estate to whom they are so often compared in would-be impartiality, the job of a referee is less to hand down a definitive ruling on a contentious, difficult matter and more to be yelled at by everyone, from every side. The life of an umpire involves endless months on the road, a salary that requires decades of seniority just to get half the pay of a rookie slap-hitting utility infielder, constant berating from tens of thousands of people every night and the possibility that one tiny split-second mistake will haunt you for the rest of your life. Why would anyone want this job? Why, in an age of replay (which has its serious flaws but obviously isn’t ever going away, for better or worse), are we even making anyone do it? In this technological age, those making the case to preserve the role of umpires and referees, and the human element they represent, often invoke the tradition of a given sport. But “traditional” is also a word for “retrograde,” and one thing we are preserving in the role of the subjective judge is a space for the arbitrary application of standards … which is to say prejudice.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this since the explosion that happened during the U.S. Open’s women’s final over the weekend, in which a tennis umpire named Carlos Ramos called out Serena Williams for a rules violation that led to Williams targeting a series of rage-fueled outbursts at Ramos, causing her to be penalized several points (in a match she was very likely to lose anyway, one feels obliged to point out) and leading to a conversation about racism and sexism that is still going on several days later. (Poor Naomi Osaka, the woman who beat Serena, was on the Today show Monday morning and was asked eight questions, seven of which were about Serena.) Ramos’s nit-picking about an unnecessary and often-uncalled rule about “coaching” has been seen as the representation of unfairness in how women and men are treated, not just in sports, but in the culture at large, not least by Serena herself. The persnickety nature of this rule has been called into question, but, as pointed out in a very smart piece by Nafari Vanaski in the Washington Post, the real problem with the rule is that it is a rule in name only: Whether it is enforced is entirely up to the particular umpire in charge. Some umpires never call it. Some umpires, including Ramos — who is well-known on the tour both for enjoying the spotlight and also for being good at his job — do. That he did has led to him being accused of being sexist on the largest stage of his career, of being the very example of how men in positions of institutional control try to control threatening, powerful women. And maybe he is! But he is also a guy making 250 bucks a day. Which is not very much, given how much heavy meaning we’ve dumped on him.
And these kinds of conflicts may just be inevitable as long as humans are calling the balls and strikes, the ins and outs, the foot faults and the fouls and the penalties. Even if you call a rule the way it’s supposed to be called, you’re still bringing yourself and your own biases into it. Like with the rest of society, you might not even realize you’re doing it: Studies have shown that baseball umpires unconsciously (one hopes!) make calls that benefit pitchers of the same race. (Though, as with all studies in an age of replication crisis, those results are up for further debate.) The idea of a truly impartial official holds as much inherent validity as, say, a judge with a history of clear political advocacy trying to claim that, when on the Supreme Court, he’d “just be calling balls and strikes.” No one believes the judge. And we’re starting to no longer believe the umpire either.
The late baseball umpire Ron Luciano once wrote that the job of umpiring was “best described as the profession of standing between two seven-year olds with one ice cream cone.” But that’s not exactly right anymore in an age of identity and social media. You are in fact standing between about 2 million seven-year-olds with one ice cream cone, except they’re looking at you not as an institution but as a flawed individual, and they know that you have your own prejudices and issues, and they’re not exactly sure why you get to be the person holding the ice cream cone in the first place, and hey, why can’t everyone have an ice cream cone? These are all good questions! We live in an age of conscious questioning of any sort of institutional authority, and no one gets this harder in sports than the umpires and the officials. Maybe you think Serena Williams was full of righteous fury at Ramos on Saturday, and maybe you think she was being a sore loser. Maybe you think she was justified to stand up for herself and women everywhere, and maybe you feel terrible for poor Naomi Osaka. But the one person no one cares about is Ramos. And why should they? He’s just a freaking ump.
He’s also, it would seem, a man on the wrong side of history. As baseball strike zones have proven, the human eye can’t possibly move fast enough to be as good as a computer tracking system is. (There are catchers now whose value is based on their ability to pitch-frame, which is another name for “successfully tricking some dope umpire.”) So what are they doing out there? Their job almost seems antiquated, or at least a temporary placeholder until technology makes them and their subjectivity extinct. Think of them as the long-haul truckers of sports: Enjoy your jobs while you have them, because they’re going away. It’s no wonder no one respects their power anymore.
They’re shadows of the past, still hanging around but hopefully not getting in the way.
I’ve told this story before, but my grandfather used to spend his weekends umpiring Little League games, and he took delight not just in the sports, but in being a bit of a moral arbiter, an absolute line between right and wrong, the last thing standing between law and order, and chaos. One time a kid slid into home plate, and my grandfather called him out. The kid jumped up and yelled, “I beat the tag! I was safe!” My grandfather looked him dead in the eye and said, “No, you were out. I am the umpire, and I called you out.
Therefore, you are out. That’s all there is to it.” Grandpa loved to tell this story laughing, adding, with a wink, “The funny thing is: I think I missed the call.”